The root cause goes back 18 years to when responsibility for keeping the Somerset Levels — including a fifth of the county’s farmland — drained and managed was handed over to a new government body, the Environment Agency. And one of its first decisions was to abandon the regular dredging of the four main rivers that for centuries have carried the floodwater, which hits the Levels every winter, safely away to the sea.
Before the Levels — some of which are below sea level — were drained by Dutch engineers in the 17th century, they were a vast marshy swamp, with only a few little islands standing above stagnant pools and reeds.
They were transformed into productive farmland, drained by a maze of ditches — or ‘rhynes’ — kept clean by the farmers, with the water being directed to the rivers by pumping stations operated by local drainage boards.
But since the Environment Agency abandoned dredging, these rivers have gradually silted up, so they are no longer capable of carrying away the floodwaters.
(Residents of other places hit by flooding this winter, including countless thousands along the Thames, have also complained their problems are made much worse by the failure to dredge.)
But the agency’s argument was not simply that to carry on dredging was too expensive. After a Labour peer, Baroness (Barbara) Young of Old Scone was put in to run it in 2000, she and her officials decided on a new priority.
Instead of managing the Levels as farmland, large parts of them should be allowed to return to being a swampy wilderness as nature reserves for birds and other wildlife.
As Baroness Young famously once observed: ‘I’d like to see a limpet mine put on every pumping station.’
This is the Diane Fox, Katie Blankley and Denise Savageau policy regarding areas of our town exposed to flooding and just like Baroness Young, they’re likely to get their way.