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2014 Somerset Levels Floods: Causes and Future Strategies

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Published: Thu, 19 Oct 2017

Following the 2014 Somerset Levels floods, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles publicly apologised for the lack of dredging of the Levels and criticised the Environment Agencies management strategy. Examine the causes of the Somerset Levels floods, and evaluate the flood management solutions.

During the autumn and winter of 2013 – 2014, an unusually high frequency of depressions moved across the Somerset Levels, causing both fluvial and pluvial flooding on a prodigious scale. The two main rivers which flow through the Levels, The River Tone and Parrett, burst their banks, spilling into the already heavily saturated flood plain. A major incident was declared and subsequently allowed the Somerset council to request financial, and physical, aid to the region (House of Commons, 2014).This essay highlights the key reasons the Somerset Levels flooded, as well as evaluating the main management solutions that were put forward during the peak of the flooding.

The autumn to winter period saw a record-breaking Jet Stream, fuelled by a diving cold Polar Vortex across the United States. With this, brought powerful storms across the United Kingdom (MetOffice, 2014). As the Polar Vortex moved southward, it interacted with the Jet Stream. This caused powerful Jet Streaks to form, thus producing rapid cyclogenesis in the mid-Atlantic. This pattern lasted several months, exacerbating the flooding issues across the Somerset Levels.

As the storms became more frequent, the water table filled up exponentially, as the majority of the soil inside in the Somerset Levels consists of clay and, further inland, peat (North Somerset Council, 2008). Every year the area experiences pluvial flooding due to its impermeable calcareous clays, which drains water very slowly (Soilscapes, n.d.). In places, parts of the rivers that run through the Levels sit above farmland, which allowed broken river banks to spill water onto the neighbouring fields. Combined with the waterlogged land, it makes the area incessantly prone to flooding (House of Commons, 2014).

The flooding eventually became a serious threat to residents and farmland which coerced the government to initialise flood management in the area, introducing extensive dredging upon the main rivers (Hartwell-Naguib and Roberts, 2014). This process takes silt deposits out from the river bed to increase the volume of the river. There has been a divide amongst the government and the Environment Agency as to whether this is a feasible and financially secure approach to flood management. The Environment Agency rejects that dredging rivers is the most important approach, as Lord Smith, chairman of the EA, claims that dredging the rivers would only make a small difference and that other management solutions would need to be applied (Guardian, 2014). The Environment Agency (Environment Agency, 2014) retains the idea that dredging would only work on a short-term basis, and the silt on the riverbed would soon return and need to be dredged once again, adding to the growing financial cost. Dredging also has a detrimental effect on the ecosystems that run within the river, as the UK Marine Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) adds that dredging causes a range of potentially damaging environmental effects on our rivers (UK Marine, n.d.). These effects include the removal of certain species and poor quality of water for those species, primarily caused by suspended sediment after the dredging process (UK Marine, n.d.). Although there appears to be a strong basis of negativity towards the process of dredging, it can also reduce the time that flooding occurs due to the increase of water conveyance within the river (CIWEM, 2014). Another idea to limit river levels was to introduce natural filter strips; vegetation is introduced to the banks of rivers to slow down rain water from running into the river. This could in turn slow down the rise of river levels, and limit the amount of water that breaks the river bank (North Somerset Council, 2008).

Another flood management solution that was recommended by the Environment Agency during the height of the floods was the use of high-capacity pumps from Holland. These pumps can drain up to 7.3 million tonnes of water each day out of the worst affected areas, into the River Sowey which then feeds into the River Parrett (CIWEM, 2014)(BBC News, 2014). The idea was to relieve pressure on the River Tone, as the surrounding areas were completely underwater. This system was highly effective at reducing water levels, however it unfortunately resulted in the displacement of water to other areas. This concluded in the areas, which previously were less affected, now being at a potential risk of flooding which caused a disposition in government.

The government had been heavily criticised by the media, organisations and local residents for not acting sooner. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) had warned the government that cuts to annual flood risk management had left a hole in financial investment in flood management across the UK, and in particular, Somerset (Hartwell-Naguib and Roberts, 2014). The Environment Agency also commented that the 10-15% cut in funding could overshadow the Somerset Levels as it’s not seen as a main threat (Alex Marshall, 2014). Responding to these concerns, the government have recently announced that a number of temporary flood defences and pumping sites will be made permanent by supporting farmers to manage flood risk better, to ensure all new developments in the area have suitable drainage systems. (Department for Environment, 2014).

In summary the flood management solutions that were used to alleviate the Somerset floods came in far too late. The Somerset Levels are prone for flooding, yet only a small amount of preventative measures were put forward to protect those who were in potential danger. The dredging process has been the most popular form of flood management in the area, but due to its high cost and small effect on flood levels, it remains an issue as to whether it can continue as the main preventative system. A more permanent solution will need to be put forward that is both financially economic and suitable for the area, to ensure both residents and farmland are better protected.

References:

Environment Agency. (2014).Dredging and Flood Risk.Available: www.ourcityourriver.co.uk/downloads/Dredging Leaflet.pdf. Last accessed 07/12/2014.

House of Commons. (2014).Winter Floods 2013/14.Available: www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06809.pdf. [Accessed 06/12/2014.]

North Somerset Council. (2008).Strategic Flood Risk Assessment: Level 1.Available: https://www.n-somerset.gov.uk/Environment/Planning_policy_and-research/researchandmonitoring/Documents/Level 1 study of North Somerset (pdf).pdf. [Accessed 06/12/2014.]

Department for Environment. (2014).New action plan to protect Somerset from flooding.Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-action-plan-to-protect-somerset-from-flooding. [Accessed 30/11/2014.]

BBC. (2014).What are the Somerset Levels?.Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-26080597. [Accessed 28/11/20.]

BBC. (2014).UK floods: Somerset Levels Dutch pumps start work.Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-26167818. [Accessed 25/11/2014.]

UK Marine. (n.d.).Dredging and disposal: Suspended sediments and turbidity.Available: http://www.ukmarinesac.org.uk/activities/ports/ph5_2_3.htm. [Accessed 27/11/2014.]

Landis. (n.d.).Soilscapes.Available: http://www.landis.org.uk/soilscapes/. [Accessed 27/11/2014.]

Meteorological Office. (2014).MetOffice.Available: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/interesting/2014-janwind. [Accessed 22/11/2014.]

Hartwell-Naguib, S & Roberts, N. (2014).Winter Floods 2013/14.Available: http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/briefing-papers/SN06809/winter-floods-201314. [Accessed 24/11/2014.]

CIWEM. (2014).Floods and Dredging – a reality check.Available: http://www.ciwem.org/media/1035043/floods_and_dredging_-_a_reality_check.pdf. [Accessed 26/11/2014.]

Alex Marshall. (2014).Environment Agency cuts: surviving the surgeon’s knife.Available: http://www.endsreport.com/41653/environment-agency-cuts-surviving-the-surgeons-knife. [Accessed 29/11/2014.]

Guardian. (2014).Lord Smith: ‘EA staff know 100 times more than any politician about flooding’.Available: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/feb/10/lord-smith-ea-staff-know-100-times-more-on-flooding. [Accessed 30/11/2014.]

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