31 Mar 2014

UK floods: Somerset dredging starts

Dredging begins on the Somerset Levels, where thousands of acres of land were submerged during storms and heavy rain.

Many homes, businesses and farms suffered severe damage when flooding struck earlier this year, with local campaigners and residents blaming the crisis on a lack of dredging on the River Tone and River Parrett.

Work on a 200-yard stretch on the River Parrett began on Monday – ahead of a five-mile stretch of river near Burrowbridge.

The work covers part of the river which has been identified for dredging as “significant amounts” of silt has built up, according to the Environment Agency (EA).

Gav Sadler, of Flooding on the Levels Action Group (Flag), welcomed the action but called for more transparency: “It is a very encouraging sight, seeing the dredging on the river.

“It has been a long time coming. Hopefully some of our campaigning has led to that. We have got to remember that the 8km stretch they are working on is just the beginning.

“We would like to see all the rivers dredged. Another issue is we don’t know the quality of the dredging they are going to do.

“They keep saying they are going to do a ‘proper job’ and restore the rivers to the 1960s profile. We would like to see what they are reprofiling it to.

The house that the Notaro family built outside the village of Moorland on the Somerset levels will be familiar to many, writes Home Affairs Correspondent Andy Davies. A modern red-brick mansion, surrounded by floodwater and, back in February, protected from the rising water levels by a 10,000 tonne earth/clay perimeter wall. It stood apart from all the other homes, a man made island amidst a vast lake, a final frontier against the floods. 

Joe Notaro, a local builder, won't disclose how much it cost him to shift that much earth to protect his son's new home, but it worked and the relief is all too evident. The patios may have sunk six inches outside, but the interior of the house is pristine, the carpets still cream and the tiles spotless. The so-called "King Canute" of the Somerset Levels now wants to build a similar "bund" around the whole village.

Further down the road it's a different picture. Skips line the driveways. Few, if any, of the homes are occupied. Michael Price stands in his kitchen, buffeted by the blast of the numerous dehumidifiers scattered around his carpet-less home. Upstairs, on the eve of his golden wedding anniversary, he is drying out his sodden black and white wedding photos and hoping he and his wife Buttons will be back in by Christmas. "Shattering" is how he describes the experience.

Dredging forms part of the Somerset Levels and Moors Flood Action Plan, commissioned by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and made possible by additional government funding.

The £100m, 20-year plan to protect the Levels proposes a tidal barrier at Bridgwater and raising key roads to prevent communities such as Muchelney being cut off again.

The dredging follows months of extreme weather and the country’s largest pumping operation on the Somerset Levels and Moors.

Around 6,500 homes and businesses were flooded in the crisis – though flood schemes protected more than 1.4 million properties and nearly 1,000 square miles of farmland.

Millions of tonnes of water were pumped off the Levels every day by 40 permanent and 25 temporary pumps.

The Environment Agency has insisted that dredging would not have prevented the flood crisis in Somerset, which left dozens of homes submerged.

John Osman, leader of Somerset County Council, said: “We have contributed a significant amount of money to the pot for dredging and so we are extremely pleased to see the first dredging activity taking place.

“It is vital that our flood-hit communities know this activity is taking place to give them some reassurance, but dredging is only part of the solution. The Somerset Moors and Levels Flood Action Plan is key to reducing the risk of flooding in the future and we will work hard to win the funding necessary to deliver it.”

Paul Leinster, chief executive of the Environment Agency, said dredging was part of a plan to help protect Somerset from future flooding.

“Today is an important milestone in the work to reduce the risk of flooding to people, property and land in Somerset and we welcome the additional money from Government that has allowed us to undertake this further dredging,” he said.