Somerset levels - monks that dug them knew undredged rivers do not drain

Simon Fairlie chapter7 at
Fri Jan 31 02:25:09 GMT 2014

Whilst I agree with Julian that dredging is necessary, and the  
Parrett River Strategy of keeping water upstream is  misfiring,  
George's piece isn't total drivel.

There are two substances coming down the Parrett — one is excess  
water and the other is silt. Any water that isn't wanted, either in  
the upper catchment or downstream, obviously needs to get down to the  
sea as smoothly as possible— but the silt is eroded soil and wants  
to stay on the land.

I lived for 15 years in the Parrett catchment area, and  know of  
several  badly managed arable fields  where every time it rains a  
river of brown mud runs down the road into the Parrett. This is  
presumably what is blocking up the rivers and drains downstream.  
George is right that these farmers need to improve their husbandry  
and plant more hedgerows,  though  the reason is to  prevent soil  
erosion, not to contain water that they don't need.

As Julian says, there has always been dredging, but this is the third  
best option for preventing waterways silting up. The first option is  
good husbandry (and organic farming is the best incentive for  
conserving soil). The second is controlled flooding of water meadows,  
which are then grazed by sheep that move deposited fertility back  
upstream. Any silt that escapes these measures needs to be dredged  
and put back on the land. And if there still isn't enough waterway to  
get rid of increased  rainfall, then its a simple matter to build a  
few more drains. If they could do it in the 17th century , then so  
can we..

Simon F

On 31 Jan 2014, at 00:54, Tony Gosling wrote:

> Shame on George for appalling drivel in the G - Tory party  
> defensive action yes, but that's not what the Guardian is for
> rivers-floods-somerset-levels-david-cameron-farmers
> see also this excellent fb group set up by the locals on which I've  
> been a-posting
> Somerset floods: this is a man-made disaster
> this-is-a-man-made-disaster.html
> Somerset apple farmer Julian Temperley is one of the thousands  
> whose homes and livelihoods have been damaged by the deluge

> Submerged: Julian Temperley at his flooded family home Photo: Jay  
> Williams
> By Anna Tyzack
> 12:43PM GMT 30 Jan 2014
> Floods here on the Somerset Levels are normally really good fun.  
> The sun comes out and we go sailing over our fields and my eldest  
> daughter Alice [Temperley, the designer] will take some pictures of  
> a girl in a canoe wearing one of her dresses. We happen to run our  
> business, The Somerset Cider Brandy company, in a part of Somerset  
> that is low lying, so we’re prepared for flooding. The water  
> arrives, then quickly disappears and no damage is done because we  
> have systems in place to control it. But there is nothing fun about  
> this current flood, which came on New Year’s Day and has stuck  
> around ever since.
> The Environment Agency has been widely reported as saying it’s a  
> freak occurrence. Not a chance. This is a man-made ecological  
> disaster. The River Parrett, which runs through the Levels, is  
> blocked and badly needs dredging. I’m not sure people realise that  
> this is not just a theory being discussed in the papers, it’s a  
> fact. It’s what is actually happening. The river at Bridgwater is  
> 10ft below its banks, while five miles upstream it is overflowing.
> If I don’t dig out the ditches on my land all hell breaks loose. I  
> lose my single farm payment and receive a fine. But the Environment  
> Agency won’t dig out its blasted river and so my ditches have  
> nowhere to drain. As a result we have 50 acres of land under six  
> feet of water – it would take more than 30 years for it to  
> evaporate naturally. Thankfully I’ve managed to salvage most of  
> the cider and cider brandy in our barns but I’ve lost some of my  
> orchards and in Thorney House, our family home where my 98-year-old  
> father lives, the flood water comes half way up my wellies. A few  
> weeks ago it was covering the furniture. My father, who is deeply  
> upset about the situation, is staying with my aunt in  
> Worcestershire while we rent him a house. It’s a big upheaval for  
> a man of his age.
> Of course it’s not just my family that has been affected. About  
> 20,000 acres of farmland in Somerset have been underwater for a  
> month now. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures. The ancient  
> village of Muchelney is totally cut off; you can only get there by  
> boat, and Thorney, where my father lives, has been evacuated. The  
> reality is horrific: tractors and cars have been submerged; animals  
> drowned, and the locals are in despair.
> An oak furniture maker near Bridgwater has lost more than £1million  
> of furniture, while the potter John Leach, 75, whose grandfather  
> Bernard Leach established Muchelney Pottery, a family dynasty, has  
> had to lay off his five employees; unless they were prepared to  
> swim, there was no way they could get to their workshops. He’s in  
> a deep depression and I think we’d lose him from the area  
> altogether if he could sell his house. But of course it’s filled  
> with water, so that’s not going to happen.
> So why hasn’t the Environment Agency dredged the river? It used to  
> be done every five years; even more than that in the areas where  
> silt builds up more quickly. But for the past 20 years the  
> Environment Agency has refused to dredge – a process that would  
> have cost them about £4million – arguing that it is anti- 
> environmental and causes as many problems as it solves (which  
> defies common sense). Instead, £31million has been spent on  
> creating a spurious wildlife reserve to protect the beetles in the  
> river banks which, by the way, are very close relations of  
> cockroaches. To think national treasures such as Leach are  
> considered of less importance than some dubious beetles!
> This reluctance to dredge is about as ridiculous as me telling MPs  
> in London to take down the Thames Barrier, pull down the  
> Embankment, and let the Thames flood Soho as it pleases. The  
> Somerset Levels, just like London, are a man-made environment; the  
> River Parrett was not put where it is by God but by man. Taunton  
> and Yeovil are two of the fastest-growing towns in England and  
> they’re putting more pressure than ever on the Parrett, a slow  
> flowing, naturally silty river. My great-great-great-grandfather  
> used to bring coal barges up it from Wales; you couldn’t do that  
> trip in a canoe, now – the bottom of the river is so high with silt
> We need to dredge 15 miles from the mouth of the river up to  
> Thorney, as has been done in some shape or form for the past 500  
> years to safeguard communities from this kind of flooding. Not even  
> the Second World War got in the way of it – we put Italian POWs on  
> the job.
> When the Somerset Levels flooded last year – and water poured in  
> to my father’s house for the first time since 1926 – the  
> Government declared it a once-in-a-lifetime event. Now it’s  
> happened again, they’ve conceded that “some dredging might be  
> done” but only after they’ve carried out studies. This week the  
> chair of the Environment Agency Lord Smith told BBC Radio 4’s  
> Today programme: “Dredging would probably make a small difference,  
> but it’s not the comprehensive answer that some people claim.”  
> The fact they think they need to research the situation shows how  
> stupid they are. River dredging happens all over the world all the  
> time. If they need someone to tell them whether water flows up hill  
> or down hill, they should ask a local farmer or call in the army to  
> sort out the situation – that’s what happened in the foot-and- 
> mouth crisis of 2001.
> We’re going to be flooded here in Somerset for at least another  
> five weeks. The longer the water lingers over the Levels, the  
> greater the ecological disaster. If the weather was 10 degrees  
> colder, the flora and fauna beneath it would be protected but as it  
> is the grass and trees are dying and everything is starting to smell.
> There’s also the economic damage to consider. In both the villages  
> of Thorney and Muchelney there’s at least £1million damage, and  
> about £50million across the whole area. Once Thorney House has  
> dried – which will take weeks – it will need to be cleaned,  
> replastered, rewired and replumbed, every appliance replaced and  
> the furniture repaired. Last year we also had to replace all the  
> old wooden floors with tiles; the whole job cost £70,000. This year  
> the damage is three times as bad and the insurance companies, most  
> of which were so accommodating last year, aren’t going to take  
> kindly to renewing our policies now.
> Over the past couple of weeks I’ve started receiving emails from  
> my neighbours asking when the church services take place in  
> Muchelney. They’re all going to church now; they think God’s got  
> something to do with all this water. But this is quite clearly a  
> man-made problem. Yes, it’s been wet but we are, after all, in the  
> middle of winter. There has been no cloudburst or crazy storm. The  
> only thing God can be blamed for is not giving the Environment  
> Agency any brains.

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