A future vision of the Somerset Levels

The flooded rhynes at West Sedgmoor RSPB on the Somerset Levels. Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com).
The flooded rhynes at West Sedgmoor RSPB on the Somerset Levels. Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com).
A plan for future management of the flood-stricken Somerset Levels has been drawn up by a task force addressing the region’s water problems.

Dubbed a ‘vision’ of what the Somerset Levels and Moors might look like in 2030, the task force's plan embraces the area’s flood management head-on, as politicians have demand short-term  responses to the recent crisis.

The Somerset Levels emerged into very public consciousness due to the severe flooding that occurred over the Christmas and New Year period, when rescue boats had to be sent out and many the houses and property of many people were damaged. By mid-January, 6,900 ha of agricultural land had been submerged for over a month, and several villages had either been abandoned or were cut off.

Environment Minister Owen Paterson eventually visited the area on 27 January, holding a media-only press conference where he promised approval of any water management plan that could be developed over the following six weeks. Dredging of the rivers Tone and Parrett, and a sluice near Bridgwater were expected to be included in such plans.

However, the task force was already set up last year (after the previous season's also severe flooding) to find ways of guiding water and land management policies over the years ahead, and included representatives of farming, conservation, local authorities and government agencies. It was set up at the suggestion of former DEFRA environment minister, Richard Benyon, in the wake of the floods of 2012-13 which coincided with the ending of many of the conservation agreements that had protected the area for the last 28 years. It should provide a long-term plan which will eventually control and possibly even prevent such disastrous flooding in future.

The floodplains will be managed to accommodate winter flooding – widely recognised as part of the special character of the Levels – while reducing flood risk elsewhere. The frequency and duration of severe flooding, and hence flood risk to homes, businesses and roads, will be reduced. During the summer there will be an adequate supply of irrigation water for farmers and wildlife in the wetlands. On the low-lying peat moors, water levels will be adopted to conserve the soils and avoid the loss of carbon to the atmosphere. Water quality will be improved and meet all EU requirements. Unsustainable farming practices will be adapted or replaced to secure a robust, sustainable base to the local economy.

Farmers and landowners will be rewarded financially for the public benefits and ecosystem services they provide by flood risk and coastal management, carbon storage and preservation of the natural environment.

Acting Chairman of the Task Force, Anthony Gibson, said that agreement on the vision was a crucial first step in tackling the Levels’ problems: “We now know where we want to go and that ought to give a very clear sense of direction, not only to the 20-year action plan for reducing flood risk, but all the other policies which impinge on this very special area.

“The really encouraging thing is the degree of consensus which the vision represents. We all want the Levels’ landscape to remain the green grid-iron of withies (barriers made of osier branches), rhynes (drainage ditches), meadows and droves (herds of cattle) that we know and love. We all want it to continue to be farmed productively, but in ways that enhance the nature conservation interest. We all want the water to be managed so that the flood risk is reduced. We all want an even richer mix of wildlife than we’ve got already, and we all want a thriving local economy built around the Levels’ special qualities.

“For the first time, all of the organisations and interests in the Levels and Moors are speaking with a single voice in saying 'this is how we want the area to be'.  The action plan to deal with flooding gives us a priceless opportunity to get things right for the Levels, its people, its farmers and its wildlife.”