UK floods: Somerset farmland water plan defended

A farm worker inspects cattle in the flooded yard at Goodings Farm at Fordgate in Somerset on 6 February 2014 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The flood management plan has been blamed for increased flooding on farmland in Somerset

A board member of the Environment Agency has defended a controversial management plan that might have contributed to flooding of farms in the Somerset Levels.

The plan, drawn up in March 2008, resolved to increase the frequency of flooding on fields in order to protect homes and property.

It has been attacked by farmers who have borne the brunt of the record rains on their land.

But an Environment Agency source, who asked not to be named, told BBC News the strategy was in line with government policy to get best value for money for flood defence spending.

'Redistributing water'

The Environment Agency's chairman, Lord Smith, appeared puzzled and defensive when asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme about the catchment management plan for the River Parrett.

He said he did not know the plan and stressed it had not been approved in his term of office.

But the board member told me the Somerset plan was perfectly rational in its recommendation to increase the frequency of flooding on some areas of farmland "to deliver benefits locally or elsewhere, which may constitute an overall flood risk reduction".

This is because dredging can often make flooding worse as it speeds water off the farmland but then overflows at a pinch point like a river bridge further downstream.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Somerset has seen some of the country's worst flooding in recent weeks

The document says: "The Somerset Levels and Moors is very complex hydraulically. We believe that there is merit in redistributing flood water within the unit to reduce flood risks overall."

It warns prophetically: "Increased rainfall may challenge flood risk management in the future (particularly the frequency and duration of flooding)."

Lord Smith said that the agency decided more recently that limited dredging of Somerset rivers was desirable.

But he said the dredging plans did not meet Treasury rules on value for money on flood spending, which demand an £8 return for every £1 invested.

'Justify the cost'

Mr Cameron has recently relaxed the rule for the Somerset Levels in response to the political crisis, although it's too late to help now the water is already on the land. The rule still applies for the rest of the UK.

"Public money is finite," the board member told me.

"There has to be a rational system for allocating it on flood defences. The government has set a priority of protecting life first, then homes. The system is weighted to favour deprived areas and also environmental and economic benefits may be taken into account.

"But on many schemes the estimated benefit simply doesn't justify the cost. If the government put up the amount they want to spend on flood defences we can obviously do more."

But increasingly flood experts are urging the government to save money and help prevent floods by catching rain where it falls on the uplands, where land is often less valuable.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Many farmers in Somerset feel abandoned

There is a strong push from professionals to reforest much of the uplands and deliberately create local floods in the hills to allow water to slowly seep into the ground and protect people living downstream.

Meanwhile Lord Smith, writing in the Guardian, has urged a calmer conversation over what to do about the rain.

When the current flood battle finally subsides, there will indeed be questions to ask, weighing the short-term need for political solutions in places like Somerset where farmers feel abandoned and the long-term strategy to make space for water in the landscape.

Many experts are also urging the government to press big firms to re-engineer their car parks to prevent water rushing off into rivers.

It's estimated that an extra £500m needs to be spent over four years to ensure that flood defences don't deteriorate further in the face of projected climate change. This will need to be publicly debated too.

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

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