From December 2013 onwards the Somerset Levels suffered severe flooding as part of the wider 2013-2014 Atlantic winter storms in Europe and subsequent 2013–2014 United Kingdom winter floods. The Somerset Levels, or the Somerset Levels and Moors as they are less commonly but more correctly known, is a coastal plain and wetland area of central Somerset, in South West England, running south from the Mendip Hills to the Blackdown Hills.
The Levels are a low-lying area around 10 to 12 feet (3 to 4 m) above mean sea level (O.D.) which have been prone to flooding from fresh water and occasional salt water inundations. People have attempted to drain the area for hundreds of years. In the Middle Ages, the monasteries of Glastonbury, Athelney, and Muchelney reclaimed and enclosed much of the land. Drains and artificial rivers have been built and pumping stations installed.
During December 2013 and January 2014 heavy rainfall led to extensive flooding with over 600 houses and 17,000 acres (6,900 ha) of agricultural land, including North Moor, Curry and Hay Moors and Greylake, affected. The village of Thorney was abandoned and Muchelney cut off. Northmoor Green, which is more commonly known as Moorland, was also severely affected. Flood relief activities included the use of rescue boats and the army. High volume pumps were brought in from the Netherlands and installed at several points to try to relieve the flooding. Prince Charles and several senior politicians visited the area and controversy arose about the role of the Environment Agency and particularly about the need for ongoing dredging of the main rivers.
The Levels occupy an area of about 160,000 acres (650 km2), bisected by the Polden Hills; the areas to the south are drained by the River Parrett, and the areas to the north by the rivers Axe and Brue. The Somerset Levels consist of marine clay "levels" along the coast, and inland (often peat-based) "moors"; agriculturally, about 70 percent is used as grassland and the rest is arable. Willow and teazel are grown commercially and peat is extracted. The Levels are about 20 feet (6 m) above mean sea level (O.D.). The general elevation of the inland Moors is 10 to 12 feet (3 to 4 m) O.D. The area's topography consists of two basins mainly surrounded by hills, the runoff from which forms rivers that originally meandered across the plain but have now been controlled by embanking and clyses (the local name for a sluice).
Although underlain by much older Triassic age formations that protrude to form what would once have been islands—such as Athelney, Brent Knoll, Burrow Mump and Glastonbury Tor—the lowland landscape was formed only during the last 10,000 years, following the end of the last ice age. Although sea level changes since the Pliocene led to changes in sea level and the laying down of vegetation, the peak of the peat formation took place in swamp conditions around 6,000 years ago, although in some areas it continued into medieval times.
It is a mainly agricultural region, typically with open fields of permanent grass surrounded by ditches with willow trees. Access to individual areas of the Moors and Levels, especially for cattle, was provided by means of "droves", i.e. green lanes, leading off the public highways. Some of the old roads, in contrast to the old hollow ways found in other areas of England, are causeways raised above the level of the surrounding land, with a drainage ditch running along each side. As a result of the wetland nature of the Moors and Levels, the area contains a rich biodiversity of national and international importance. It supports a great variety of plant and bird species and is an important feeding ground for birds. The Levels and Moors include 32 Sites of Special Scientific Interest, of which 12 are also Special Protection Areas. The area has been extensively studied for its biodiversity and heritage, and has a growing tourism industry.
History of flood defence
The area is prone to winter floods of fresh water and occasional salt water inundations. The worst in recorded history was the Bristol Channel floods of 1607, which resulted in the drowning of an estimated 2,000 or more people in this and other areas; houses and villages swept away; an estimated 200 square miles (51,800 ha) of farmland inundated; and livestock killed. Another severe flood occurred in 1872–1873, when over 107 square miles (27,713 ha) were underwater from October to March.
Early attempts to control the water levels were possibly made by the Romans, but were not widespread. The Domesday Book recorded that drainage of the higher grounds was under way, although the moors at Wedmoor were said to be useless. In the Middle Ages, the monasteries of Glastonbury, Athelney, and Muchelney were responsible for much of the drainage. In 1129, the Abbot of Glastonbury was recorded as inspecting enclosed land at Lympsham. Efforts to control flooding on the Parrett were recorded around the same date. In 1234, 722 acres (292.2 ha) were reclaimed near Westonzoyland and, from the accounts in the abbey's rent books, this had increased to 972 acres (393 ha) by 1240.
Flooding of adjacent moor land was partially addressed during the 13th century by the construction of a number of embankment walls to contain the Parrett. They included Southlake Wall, Burrow Wall, and Lake Wall. The River Tone was also diverted by the Abbot of Athelney and other land owners into a new embanked channel, joining the River Parrett upstream from its original confluence. The main drainage outlets flowing through the Moors and Levels are the rivers Axe, Brue, Huntspill, Parrett, Tone, and Yeo, together with the King's Sedgemoor Drain, an artificial channel into which the River Cary now runs. Previously, the Cary ran into the Tone while the Brue ran through Meare Pool (now drained) and the Panborough Gap, and then into the Axe. Another accomplishment in the Middle Ages was the construction of the tidal Pillrow Cut, joining the Brue and Axe. In 1500, there was said to be 70,000 acres (283 km2) of floodable land of which only 20,000 acres (81 km2) had been reclaimed. In 1597, 50 acres (20 ha) of land were recovered near the Parrett estuary; a few years later, 140 acres (57 ha) near Pawlett were recovered by means of embankments; and three further reclamations, totaling 110 acres (45 ha), had been undertaken downstream of Bridgwater by 1660.
In the early 17th century, during the time of King James I, abortive plans were made to drain and enclose much of Sedgemoor, which the local Lords supported but opposed by the Commoners who would have lost grazing rights. In 1632, Charles I sold the Crown's interest in the scheme, and it was taken over by a consortium that included Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch drainage engineer. However, the work was delayed by the English Civil War and later defeated in parliament after local opposition. In 1638, it was reported that nearly 2,600 acres (11 km2) of Tealham and Tadham Moors were not reclaimed, with a total of 30,500 acres (123.43 km2) being undrained. Between 1785 and 1791, much of the lowest part of the peat moors was enclosed. In 1795, John Billingsley advocated enclosure and the digging of rhynes (a local name for drainage channels, pronounced "reens" in the east and rhyne to the west) between plots, and wrote in his Agriculture of the County of Somerset that 4,400 acres (18 km2) had been enclosed in the last 20 years in Wedmore and Meare, 350 acres (1.4 km2) at Nyland, 900 acres (3.64 km2) at Blackford, 2,000 acres (8 km2) at Mark, 100 acres (0.4 km2) in Shapwick, and 1,700 acres (7 km2) at Westhay. At Westhay Moor in the early 19th century, it was shown how peat bogs could be successfully drained and top-dressed with silt deposited via flooding, creating a very rich soil. The character of the soil was also changed by the spreading of clay and silt from the digging of King's Sedgemoor Drain.
The man-made Huntspill River was constructed during World War II with sluices at both ends to provide a guaranteed daily supply of 4,500,000 imperial gallons (20,000,000 l; 5,400,000 US gal) of "process water". It was intended that in the summer, when water supply was lower, it would serve as a reservoir with water pumped from the moors; and in winter serve as a drainage channel, via gravity drainage.Geotechnical problems prevented it from being dug as deep as originally intended and so gravity-drainage of the moors was not possible: thus, water is pumped up into the river throughout the year. The Sowy River between the River Parrett and King's Sedgemoor Drain was completed in 1972. The Levels and Moors are now artificially drained by a network of rhynes which are pumped up into "drains". Water levels are managed by the Levels internal drainage boards (IDBs); the Levels are not as intensively drained or farmed as the East Anglianfens, historically a similar area of low marsh. One of the approaches to reducing the risk of flooding within the catchment area of the Parrett is the planting of new woodlands.
Since 1990, the drainage boards have been charged with watching the rhynes and keeping them clear, under the overall responsibility of the Environment Agency. Although the Environment Agency have made plans for the regular winter flooding, still in recent years this has resulted in a number of villages — including Langport, Muchelney and Westonzoyland — being cut off. In November 2012, during the 2012 Great Britain and Ireland floods, after six days Somerset County Council-funded BARB rescue boats reached Muchelney on 29 November, rescuing nearly 100 people.
Controversy about the management of the drainage and flood protection has previously involved the activities of IDBs. However, IDBs have been actively participating with the Parrett Catchment Partnership, a partnership of 30 organisations that aims to create a consensus on how water is to be managed, in particular, looking at new ways to achieve sustainable benefits for all local stakeholders.
During 2009 and 2010, work was undertaken to upgrade sluice gates, watercourses, and culverts to enable seasonal flooding of Southlake Moor during the winter diverting water from the Sowy River onto the moor. It has the capacity to hold 1.2 million cubic metres as part of a scheme by the Parrett Internal Drainage Board to restore ten floodplains in Somerset. In spring, the water is drained away to enable the land to be used as pasture during the summer. The scheme is also used to encourage water birds.
The Environment Agency's current "Parrett Catchment Flood Management Plan", published in December 2009, divides the Parrett catchment area into eight sub-areas, with the Somerset Levels and Moors falling into sub-area 6 and Bridgwater falling into sub-area 7. As part of the published flood risk assessments for both these sub-areas, it is recognised that: at a future date a tidal clyse may be needed on the Parrett; this causes a funding dilemma; and, geomorphology studies of the Parrett and the Tone are needed to help address many of the uncertainties associated with a tidal exclusion project.
The Environment Agency has been reluctant to dredge the channels, partly because under the European Union Water Framework Directive (2000), member nations' rivers must be left to 'develop naturally'. It has been argued that as a consequence, rivers silt up and have reduced capacity to carry flooding waters when rainfall is heavier than average. On the other hand, Guardian columnist George Monbiot has argued that it would be more effective to spend money on holding floodwaters upstream than to increase the capacity of rivers by dredging.
Little attempt was made during the 17th and 18th centuries to pump water, possibly because the coal-driven Newcomen steam engines would have been uneconomical. It is not clear why windmills were not employed, as they were on the Fens of East Anglia, but only two examples have been recorded on the Levels: one at Bleadon at the mouth of the River Axe, where a sea wall had been built, and the other at Common Moor north of Glastonbury, which was being drained following a private Act of Parliament in 1721. The first steam pumping station was Westonzoyland Pumping Station in 1830, followed by more effective ones from 1860. Automatic electric pumps are used today.
Along with the rest of South West England the Somerset Levels have a temperate climate, which is generally wetter and milder than the rest of the country. The annual mean temperature is approximately 10 °C (50.0 °F). Seasonal temperature variation is less extreme than most of the United Kingdom because of the adjacent sea. The summer months of July and August are the warmest, with mean daily maxima of approximately 21 °C (69.8 °F). In winter, mean minimum temperatures of 1 or 2 °C (33.8 or 35.6 °F) are common. The Azores high pressure area influences the south-west of England's summer weather, but convective cloud sometimes forms inland, reducing the number of hours of sunshine. Annual sunshine rates are slightly less than the regional average of 1,600 hours. In December 1998, there were 20 days without sun recorded at Yeovilton. Most rainfall in the south-west is caused by convection or Atlantic depressions, which are most active in autumn and winter, when they are the chief cause of rain. In summer, a large proportion of the rainfall is caused by the Sun heating the land, leading to convection and to showers and thunderstorms. Average rainfall is around 700 mm (28 in), and about 8–15 days of snowfall is typical. November to March have the highest mean wind speeds, while June to August have the lightest winds. The predominant wind direction is from the southwest.
During December 2013, several deep areas of low pressure moved across or to the north of the British Isles, bringing high wind speeds and heavy rain to many locations. This weather was connected to major perturbations to the Pacific and North Atlantic jet streams, which was partially caused by persistent rainfall over Indonesia and the tropical Pacific Ocean. The Northern Atlantic jet stream was also unusually strong, which was linked to an unusually strong westerly phase of the stratospheric Quasi-biennial oscillation which drove a very deep polar vortex and strong polar night jet.
The first major area of low pressure moved across the British Isles between 5–6 December and was followed by another system on 18–19 December, while a system moved to the north of the UK during 23–24 December. This made December 2013 one of the stormiest Decembers on record, and one of the windiest months since January 1993. Figures released by the Met Office on 30 January indicated that Southern England and parts of the Midlands had experienced their highest January rainfall since records began in 1910.
The River Parrett overflowed at new year, during the rain and storms from Storm Dirk, with many residents asking for the Environment Agency to resume river dredging. On 24 January 2014, in light of the continued flooded extent of the Somerset Moors and forecast new rainfall as part of the Winter storms of 2013–14 in the United Kingdom, both Somerset County Council and Sedgemoor District Council declared a major incident, as defined under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. At this time, with 17,000 acres (6,900 ha) of agricultural land having been under water for over a month, the village of Thorney had been abandoned and Muchelney had been cut off by flood waters for almost a month.Northmoor Green, which is more commonly known as Moorland, was also severely affected.
By the end of January, 17,000 acres (6,900 ha) of agricultural land, including North Moor, Curry and Hay Moors and Greylake, had been under water for over a month. Bridgwater was partly flooded on 10 February 2014, when 20,000 sandbags were ready to be deployed. In total 165 properties on the Somerset Levels suffered internal flooding.  > Both flooding and groundwater had also disrupted services including trains on the Bristol to Exeter Line between Bridgwater and Taunton.
The Ministry of Defence sent Royal Marines from 40 Commando (based at Norton Manor Camp near Taunton) to the Somerset Levels to help with flood protection. The Government also provided an extra £30 million for repairs. A small unit of Mounted Police patrolled parts of the Somerset Levels after reports of items, including heating oil and quad bikes being stolen from the homes of flood victims on 3 February.
An earth bank at Huntworth was hastily built, connecting the canal bank to the railway embankment and the embankment to the river wall. This was to prevent any flooding from reaching the outskirts of Bridgwater. Some of the Dutch pumps were located behind it at Newhouse Farm to pump any water away.
In the middle of February 2014, the Environment Agency began installing giant pumps imported from the Netherlands to alleviate the continuing flooding. A Dutch team of engineers had arrived in at a sluice at Bridgwater with more than 20 lorries full of kit and pumps to help with the flood relief effort in Somerset on 12 February. By 21 February 8 high-output pumps located at Dunball were starting to lower the level in King's Sedgemoor Drain allowing floodwater-from the upper Parrett to reach it by way of the Sowy River. The water is pumped into the tidal river Parrett for several hours on either side of a high tide. At low tide the water drains through the sluice gates at Dunball by gravity. The Monks Leaze Clyse, near Langport was gradually opened on Saturday 22 February, allowing the operation to start. The pumps at Dunball drew water out of the King's Sedgemoor Drain into the River Parrett at a rate of 56,000 m3 every hour.
There has been enormous local support for those affected by the floods, co-ordinated by FLAG — the Flooding on the Levels Action Group. As well as having volunteers in the villages, they are organising fund-raising, and the collection of supplies to help those who have suffered. They make extensive use of social media - Facebook and Twitter to communicate news.
The Environment Agency's south west office had reported that a temporary flood barrier in Bridgwater, Somerset has been vandalised by unknown assailants.
High profile visits and politicians comments
Environment SecretaryOwen Paterson visited the area on 27 January 2014, and after meeting local MPs, the Environment Agency and various community representatives the night before in Taunton, promised at a media-only press conference at North Moor pumping station that if a local water management plan could be developed over the next six weeks, he would approve it. Such plan would likely include the dredging of the rivers Tone and Parrett, and possibly a later sluice near Bridgwater. There have been public protests about the river Parrett not being dredged in recent years. The expense of ongoing dredging continued to be debated, however the Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that dredging would resume once it was safe. Jean Venables the chief executive of the Association of Drainage Authorities said engineering measures costing around £60 million, and including a permanent pumping station at Dunball could help to relieve future flooding.
Prince Charles visited the flooded parts of Somerset on 4 February 2014 and told residents it was a "tragedy" nothing had been done for so long. Local volunteers, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the firefighters did their best, but required more help from central government. One of the Prince's charities is donating £50,000 to help victims, while the government then announced an extra £300,000 of emergency funding. Some villages on the Somerset Levels had been cut off for more than a month by 4 February 2014. On 6 February Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that £400,000 had been spent on pumping.
There was criticism of head of the Environment Agency by Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger who described Chris Smith, Baron Smith of Finsbury as a "little git", a "coward" and claimed he would "stick his head down the loo and flush". The row focused on the flooding of the Somerset Levels and whether the River Parrett and River Tone should be dredged.
On 7 February, the Environment Secretary handed over the flood management to the Communities SecretaryEric Pickles as he had to undergo an urgent operation to fix a detached retina. The Communities Secretary subsequently appeared on The Andrew Marr Show and apologised "unreservedly" for not dredging the Somerset Levels and said that "the government may have relied too much on the advice" of the Environment Agency. The head of the Environment Agency Lord Chris Smith subsequently responded by openly rejecting the criticism of his organisation and defended it by saying that government budget cuts and "value-for-money" rules imposed by the Treasury were responsible for limiting the Environment Agency's response. The media subsequently reported that the Environment Secretary had protested in the strongest possible terms to the Prime Minister about the Communities Secretary “grandstanding”. On 11 February David Cameron, who had visited the area the previous day, ordered that the political bickering in government should end.
Following the invitation of the Environment Secretary in January 2014 for local organisations and residents to develop a management plan to reduce the future incidence of flooding, a report was submitted on 6 March as the floods were subsiding. The plan included plans, which had previously been announced, for the dredging of the Rivers Parrett and Tone. It also proposed improvements to the artificial Sowy River which carries excess water from the River Parrett to the King's Sedgemoor Drain. The plan also proposed the construction of a tidal barrier, similar to but smaller than the Thames Barrier should be built at Bridgwater, and that roads should be raised above the surrounding fields. The temporary pumps at Dunball and Beer Wall would also be replaced with permanent pumping stations. The Committee on Climate Change, following the submission of the plan, emphasised that the new work should take into account increased risks in the future because of climate change.
The estimated cost for the work over the next 20 years was £100 million however only £20 million was pledged by the government.
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By Paul Homewood
There was an interesting report in last Sunday’s Telegraph about recent flooding in the Somerset Levels. I’ll not reprint the whole thing, but would certainly recommend reading it.
The essence of the article is that the flooding there, which began late last month and peaked on 1st January, are the worst in living memory.
Now, anyone familiar with this part of England will know that the Levels are notorious for winter flooding, and have been since time immemorial. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, one explanation for the county of Somerset’s name is that, in prehistory, because of winter flooding people restricted their use of the Levels to the summer, leading to a derivation from Sumorsaete, meaning land of the summer people.
And, of course, King Alfred hid away from the Vikings at Athelney, in the middle of the Levels, protected by impenetrable swamps.
Consequently, when someone says “the worst in living memory”, I tend to get the pinch of salt ready! But when a farmer, whose house is flooded for the second time in just over a year, tells us that it had not been flooded for the previous 88 years, you have to treat the matter seriously. To quote the Telegraph:
For the moment, he and his partner, Linda, are living upstairs at Horsey Farm, because the ground floor of the building has been flooded.
“The carpets have gone, the floorboards will have to come up, the plaster will have to come off the walls, we will have to start all over again,” he says. They only returned to the property nine weeks ago, having been out of it since a similar flood in November 2012.
“Before that the house had not been flooded for 88 years, that’s the point,” he says. “People lived here for centuries without it being as bad as this. Something is definitely going wrong. The water levels have gone right up.”
So, is this all evidence that climate change is making floods worse, as many would have us believe? Let’s take a look at the Met Office data. I have outlined in red the rough area we are looking at .
As can be seen, although December rainfall was higher than average, it was not abnormally so. I have also included the November map, to show that that month was around or below average for Somerset, so there is no evidence of a long term build up of water.
We can also look at the December rainfall trends for SW England & S Wales. The area covered by this region is shown below. Although this region covers a wider range than just Somerset, a look at the above December map indicates that much of the region was wetter than the part we are concerned with. In other words, the regional stats probably overestimate the rainfall anomaly for Somerset.
The graph makes clear that last month’s rainfall was not unusual in any way. Since 1910, it ranks as the 19th wettest, in other words a once every 5 year event. The rain in December does not even compare with years such as 1934, when 307mm was recorded. In fact, it is noticeable that all of the really wet Decembers occurred prior to 1970.
Taking all months of the year, rather than just December, there have been 70 months with higher rainfall than December 2013. On average, therefore, the region would expect to see rainfall amounts as high as, or higher than, last month at some stage of the year every year or two.
We can also look at the stats for the local station of Yeovilton, about 20 miles to the south of the Levels, rather than the region as a whole.
The Met Office data, which runs back to 1964, shows 121mm rainfall for December 2013. However, the Telegraph article mentions that torrential rain on New Year’s Day made the floods worse, and a check with Weather Underground shows 18mm that day, so I have added that onto the Met Office’s December figure. (It is also worth pointing out that since 1st January, rainfall amounts have been close to average for January).
The resulting 139mm would represent the 14th wettest month since 1964, so about a once in three year occurrence. Given the evidence in Figure 1, it seems likely that many more such months would have occurred prior to 1964.
It is utterly clear that there has been nothing unusual about levels of rainfall, so what has been going on in Somerset? This is where the locals in Muchelney make their views plain.
There is, however, one awkward challenge that has to be made to the villagers. The Somerset Levels were built to flood. The name of the village derives from the Saxon for “great island”. If people choose to live on a historic floodplain, how can they possibly complain when it floods?
“Yes, the fields are meant to flood, but it is too much now,” says Maxine Grice, a long-time resident of Muchelney. “It comes too quickly and it stays too long. It used to happen every 10 years and it was never this deep. People have been flooded lately who never were before. It’s because the rivers haven’t been dredged over the last 20 years. They have silted up.”
Others villagers agree this is why the flood levels have risen catastrophically. They blame the Environment Agency for neglecting the local rivers, which have now silted up so much that they can only carry a third of the water they used to. The theory is that this leaves the rivers unable to cope in the rain when extra water is also sent from Taunton and Bridgwater, from where it is pumped away to protect new homes built on former floodplains.
“We are being sacrificed in order to help those towns,” says Ms Wilson-Ward. “Yes, we are a small village but we are still taxpayers, we still need to protect our houses and our businesses like everyone else. The Environment Agency need to pull their fingers out, apply for whatever money they need, start dredging, get people down here and start fixing things.”
Similar complaints have been raised many times in recent years, but this case gives us real evidence that such concerns are justified.
Whilst Somerset is only one part of the country, and the performance of the Environment Agency may be better elsewhere, it is important that, if flooding problems are to be resolved, the actual causes are identified, so they can be acted on.
It really does not help the inhabitants of Muchelney, or the thousands of others affected by floods, when David Cameron, Corinne Le Quere, Chris Smith and the rest blame them on climate change, and think that building lots of wind farms will make things better.
Perhaps some of the money spent fighting climate change should be diverted to repairing our neglected flood defences and drainage systems.
Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier hiding behind excuses than taking the responsibility to do something about a problem. And it is also very convenient when those excuses support a political agenda.
Christopher Booker, who lives in Somerset, made similar comments about the failure of the Environment Agency to dredge the rivers there. He also suggests there is a desire amongst many at the Agency to see the Levels return to the swampy wilderness that existed prior to the 17thC, when they were drained.