Costly plan to reduce Somerset floods

Car cut off by flood waters Local people have argued that floods are exacerbated by silt clogging up rivers

Efforts to help one of Britain's most flood-prone regions will cost "tens of millions of pounds", according to the Environment Agency.

A plan to safeguard the Somerset Levels is due to be unveiled tomorrow amid concerns about the funding needed to implement it.

Parts of the area have been underwater for more than two months with many homes, roads and farms still affected.

The flooding led to intense criticism of the Environment Agency last month which in turn triggered an open dispute at senior levels of government.

One immediate measure, already announced, is a scheme to clear a five-mile stretch of waterway where two key rivers meet.

Computer modelling of that proposal shows that dredging could reduce the height of flooding and its duration.

Local people have long demanded dredging of this kind, arguing that the floods have been exacerbated by silt clogging the rivers.

Further steps are expected to include installing bigger pumps and providing better protection for villages.

A long-standing proposal to build a new barrier to hold back high tides may also be brought forward.

In a winter of extreme weather, the sheer duration of the floods in the Somerset Levels has made the plight of this area highly sensitive politically.

Agreed strategy

The plan comes after the Environment Secretary Owen Paterson visited Somerset and called on local organisations to pull together an agreed strategy within six weeks.

The government has already promised an extra £10m to assist the area but there are questions about how much extra cash will be available beyond that.

Black and Veatch modelling This graphic shows computer modelling of a 2012 flood in Somerset versus what might have happened with dredging

The plan is designed to offer a comprehensive solution for the area ranging from encouraging farmers to retain rainwater in the uplands to improving the flow of water through the Levels themselves to helping local people make their communities more resilient.

One major cost already accounted for is £4.1m for the dredging operation along the rivers Parrett and Tone.

But officials estimate that a proposal to upgrade an artificial river, the Sowy, could cost £4m-£8m and the plan for a tidal barrier at Bridgwater - to keep the highest tides out of the River Parrett - was priced at nearly £25m back in 2009 and is understood to be higher now.

David Rooke, head of flood risk management at the Environment Agency, refused to put a price tag on the overall cost of the proposals.

But, in a BBC interview, he said: "It would be tens of millions and it would need to be sustained for the next 10-20 years."

"You're certainly talking a lot of money both from central government and local government and keeping that funding in place for many years."

Estimating benefits

Mr Rooke also warned that if the Somerset Levels were protected to a far higher standard, other areas may demand the same level of defence too - and current funding will not cover that.

"To avoid the sort of extreme event that we've seen, if we replicated that standard right across the country you'd be talking many billions of investment to give people the same standard of protection and at the moment government policy is not to do that."

Another official, speaking privately, said the assumption was that any plans to spend more than the £10m already agreed in Somerset would have to be settled in the usual competitive way.

Pumps Pumps installed near Bridgwater spew out 16 tonnes of water each second

That involves officials estimating the benefits of any scheme in terms of economic gain or households protected - and until recently, the Somerset Levels have fared badly in that calculation.

The plan to start dredging has been assessed in detail by flood risk specialists from the consultancy Black & Veatch.

Principal engineer Andy Wallis, who has long experience of the Somerset Levels, said research into an earlier flood in the same area in the winter of 2012 showed that dredging could bring benefits.

"Flooding is all about risk and you can never eliminate risk but you can very much reduce the risk and what dredging does is reduce the volume of water ending up in these areas.

"We know the current event is more extreme than last year and we know that dredging in this area would have had a benefit - it certainly wouldn't have eliminated flooding but it would have affected the duration of the event."

Other measures beyond dredging will need to be studied in more detail before being approved.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Have they talked to the engineers who know about these things, or this a vote buying exercise?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    "Costly plan to reduce Somerset floods"

    Probably not as 'costly' as BBC3.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Very hard not to be skeptical. Do the recipients of this tax payer bail-out deserve it more than others? Do they support nanny state that wipes up after bad decisions about where to purchase private property? Let's hope they also support social cohesion and joint action in other areas of life, like education, healthcare, the environment etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    4 Hours ago
    "No warming now for 17yrs & 6 months apparently

    Oh dear.

    1. It takes a lot of heat to melt ice, which melts at a constant temperature. Average sea ice volume has been going down sharply since global temperatures stopped rising.
    Oh Dear .. have you seen the volume of ice in Antartica + increased ice coverage in the Arctic oh dear

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Tragic although it is for those whose homes have been flooded, there is not a bottomless purse. The Thames barrier was expensive, but London is the economic heart of the UK, and home to millions of people. Any flood defences in Somerset have to be equally cost effctive in terms of per capita spending. Iron Age Somerset was a marshland of peat bogs and lake villages - drainage has changed that..

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    And............ I think they spent a lot more building the London barrage!

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    IDBs have been getting public & private funds to pay for their drainage since the 1930s, some since the 1860s. Their boundaries were shown decades ago on s24(5) maps and now within the EA flood maps.

    Whilst I sympathize with those who are flooded, they should have known about the flood risk - if not, did their solicitors check fully?

    If flood is in an IDB area, then no extra public funds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Costly? - when, in London, the disused Brompton Road tube station has just sold for £53 million, for residential development?.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Well said 45 A devastated Planet; it's time we stopped pursuing fracking and instead developed the clean nuclear technology of Liquid Fluourde Thorium Reactors to replace fossil fuels. As for the tidal barrage idea, this should be built from Minehead to Llantwit Major. This would provide many times the renewable energy than proposed schemes and control tidal surges throughout the Bristol channel

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Tens of millions?
    Isn't that peanuts compared with £40 billion wasted on HS2 to get from London to Glasgow 30 minutes sooner?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    It's going to get more costly unless we abandon fossil energy use forthwith.

    You think the last four months were bad ?

    200 years of planet abuse has consequences.

    You wait until Arctic methane makes it's debut.


    You can't say you haven't been advised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    @23 Sign of the times

    EA took over drainage in Somerset 20+ years ago, sold all drainage equipment and did no maintenance - despite being paid £400K a year by local drainage boards.

    If the EA was taken out of the equation I'm sure the bill would be "magically" reduced.

    Rather than being in such a rush to knock farmers your might actually be bothered to check your facts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    "Costly Plan To Reduce Somerset Floods"...the BBC's attempt to say "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" . I am sick and tired of being told by the BBC and other media "what I want". S'truth, I HAVE NOT BEEN ASKED. I want...but you don't want to know...

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Somerset Council has said 150 homes affected by the floods, but only 40 flooded. If Government spends 100 M on measures this is 660K per home affected, or 2.5 M per home flooded with no Guarantee it works. With our schools and social services being cut is this a rational decision or knee-jerk reaction. Add into this climate change and sea-level rise (6 m if Greenland ice sheet melts) and .....

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    When we flooded in 2007, along with thousands of others we blamed the rain, as did people in 2000. What aspect of record rain fall do people not understand? There have been maps of areas at high flood risk available to all for over a decade - I live in such an area - so why do so many people say "nobody warned us"? River dredging will waste £m to very little
    effect - read the report post 2007.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    In the past silt dredged from the drains was mixed with the peat, to create a fertile soil. One of the problems today is that run off may contain high levels of toxins, e,g lead bult up before unleaded petrol . Dredging this has to be carefully considered, especially with regard to disposal of the silt. However, dredging is not the total solution as the slope of the rivers and drains is shallow..

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Dear BBC. I presume the computer model (map of extent/depth of flooding) comes with an associated error? If one want to make informed conclusions about any dredging proposals one needs to know to what accuracy these predictions are made. It also doesn't say how much 'dredging' has been performed in this model nor do you give a sense of scale! We must be analytical in our evaluations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Funny how the greenies don't mind spending taxpayers money on subsidising the get rich quick scams of wind turbine farms but can't recognise the value of protecting an area that provides work and food for the benefit of many more than just those who live there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Some very ignorant comments! As a local, let me educate you a bit. The 'levels' are not ALL low lying by any means, and have one of the oldest histories of human habitation in Europe. Sensibly the early inhabitants of the region lived on high ground, which was often turned in to islands by flooding. Most locals have lived here for many generations, and still only live on the high and dry bits!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I can't see how dredging is so expensive given that by adding a bit of sand and clay to the silt it can be sold as topsoil to offset the cost. I'm a bit surprised the local farmers aren't allowed to dredge from the drains and artificial rivers and dump the silt onto their land to slowly build up the land height.


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