Skip to content

Flooding In The Somerset Levels – A Case Study

January 17, 2014

By Paul Homewood





There was an interesting report in last Sunday’s Telegraph about recent flooding in the Somerset Levels. I’ll  not reprint the whole thing, but would certainly recommend reading it.

The essence of the article is that the flooding there, which began late last month and peaked on 1st January, are the worst in living memory.

Now, anyone familiar with this part of England will know that the Levels are notorious for winter flooding, and have been since time immemorial. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, one explanation for the county of Somerset’s name is that, in prehistory, because of winter flooding people restricted their use of the Levels to the summer, leading to a derivation from Sumorsaete, meaning land of the summer people.

And, of course, King Alfred hid away from the Vikings at Athelney, in the middle of the Levels, protected by impenetrable swamps.

Consequently, when someone says “the worst in living memory”, I tend to get the pinch of salt ready! But when a farmer, whose house is flooded for the second time in just over a year, tells us that it had not been flooded for the previous 88 years, you have to treat the matter seriously. To quote the Telegraph:


For the moment, he and his partner, Linda, are living upstairs at Horsey Farm, because the ground floor of the building has been flooded.

“The carpets have gone, the floorboards will have to come up, the plaster will have to come off the walls, we will have to start all over again,” he says. They only returned to the property nine weeks ago, having been out of it since a similar flood in November 2012.

“Before that the house had not been flooded for 88 years, that’s the point,” he says. “People lived here for centuries without it being as bad as this. Something is definitely going wrong. The water levels have gone right up.”


So, is this all evidence that climate change is making floods worse, as many would have us believe? Let’s take a look at the Met Office data. I have outlined in red the rough area we are looking at .


As can be seen, although December rainfall was higher than average, it was not abnormally so. I have also included the November map, to show that that month was around or below average for Somerset, so there is no evidence of a long term build up of water.




November 2013 Rainfall 1981 - 2010 anomaly


We can also look at the December rainfall trends for SW England & S Wales. The area covered by this region is shown below. Although this region covers a wider range than just Somerset, a look at the above December map indicates that much of the region was wetter than the part we are concerned with. In other words, the regional stats probably overestimate the rainfall anomaly for Somerset.





Figure 1



The graph makes clear that last month’s rainfall was not unusual in any way. Since 1910, it ranks as the 19th wettest, in other words a once every 5 year event. The rain in December does not even compare with years such as 1934, when 307mm was recorded. In fact, it is noticeable that all of the really wet Decembers occurred prior to 1970.

Taking all months of the year, rather than just December, there have been 70 months with higher rainfall than December 2013. On average, therefore, the region would expect to see rainfall amounts as high as, or higher than, last month at some stage of the year every year or two.


We can also look at the stats for the local station of Yeovilton, about 20 miles to the south of the Levels, rather than the region as a whole.

The Met Office data, which runs back to 1964, shows 121mm rainfall for December 2013. However, the Telegraph article mentions that torrential rain on New Year’s Day made the floods worse, and a check with Weather Underground shows 18mm that day, so I have added that onto the Met Office’s December figure. (It is also worth pointing out that since 1st January, rainfall amounts have been close to average for January).

The resulting 139mm would represent the 14th wettest month since 1964, so about a once in three year occurrence. Given the evidence in Figure 1, it seems likely that many more such months would have occurred prior to 1964.



Figure 2


It is utterly clear that there has been nothing unusual about levels of rainfall, so what has been going on in Somerset? This is where the locals in Muchelney make their views plain.


There is, however, one awkward challenge that has to be made to the villagers. The Somerset Levels were built to flood. The name of the village derives from the Saxon for “great island”. If people choose to live on a historic floodplain, how can they possibly complain when it floods?

“Yes, the fields are meant to flood, but it is too much now,” says Maxine Grice, a long-time resident of Muchelney. “It comes too quickly and it stays too long. It used to happen every 10 years and it was never this deep. People have been flooded lately who never were before. It’s because the rivers haven’t been dredged over the last 20 years. They have silted up.”

Others villagers agree this is why the flood levels have risen catastrophically. They blame the Environment Agency for neglecting the local rivers, which have now silted up so much that they can only carry a third of the water they used to. The theory is that this leaves the rivers unable to cope in the rain when extra water is also sent from Taunton and Bridgwater, from where it is pumped away to protect new homes built on former floodplains.

We are being sacrificed in order to help those towns,” says Ms Wilson-Ward. “Yes, we are a small village but we are still taxpayers, we still need to protect our houses and our businesses like everyone else. The Environment Agency need to pull their fingers out, apply for whatever money they need, start dredging, get people down here and start fixing things.”


Final Thoughts

Similar complaints have been raised many times in recent years, but this case gives us real evidence that such concerns are justified.

Whilst Somerset is only one part of the country, and the performance of the Environment Agency may be better elsewhere, it is important that, if flooding problems are to be resolved, the actual causes are identified, so they can be acted on.


It really does not help the inhabitants of Muchelney, or the thousands of others affected by floods, when David Cameron, Corinne Le Quere, Chris Smith and the rest blame them on climate change, and think that building lots of wind farms will make things better.

Perhaps some of the money spent fighting climate change should be diverted to repairing our neglected flood defences and drainage systems.

Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier hiding behind excuses than taking the responsibility to do something about a problem. And it is also very convenient when those excuses support a political agenda.



Christopher Booker, who lives in Somerset, made similar comments about the failure of the Environment Agency to dredge the rivers there. He also suggests there is a desire amongst many at the Agency to see the Levels return to the swampy wilderness that existed prior to the 17thC, when they were drained.

  1. January 17, 2014 5:40 pm

    Ms. Grice

  2. Asmilwho permalink
    January 17, 2014 6:03 pm

    Christopher Booker in his Telegraph blog makes the same point about rivers not being dredged after the Environmental Agency took over and further offers this gem:

    ” (A former head of the Environment Agency was heard to say that she would like to “attach a limpet mine to every pumping station”.)”

  3. January 17, 2014 7:31 pm

    If their house was flooded 88 years ago, it’s not a new phenomenon and hardly likely to have been caused by Glowbull warming.

    • February 6, 2014 11:14 am

      Huh. Really interesting point there, Earthling.

      But did you read the piece at all? It’s pretty clear that the floods have now struck the same site twice in as many years, with rainfall that’s not very much above average. And the previous time there was any flood of this magnitude was 88 years ago. Once.

      Combined with the regular flooding in Gloucestershire (in 2008, that was a ‘once in 100 years’ event, it has now happened in five of the last six years), severe floods across GB and massive sea storms battering our coasts (ever stopped to wonder why rail lines and piers which are more than 100 years old are being destroyed now?), perhaps you would be better occupied thinking about solutions rather than inventing ‘hilarious’ puns?

  4. John F. Hultquist permalink
    January 17, 2014 8:05 pm

    It seems people know what the issue is but no one wants to fix it. It is much easier to say CO2 did it and move on to “invest” available money on non-solutions that enrich the rich even more.
    That said, I’m not a fan of perpetual dredging. Consider the Galveston Seawall
    . . . where the area behind the wall was filled in via dredging and the houses and other buildings were raised to the new level. This approach will not work well with old stone buildings but 150 years from now either the problem will have been fixed or the dredging will still be needed. This reminds me of the oil filter commercial:

  5. John F. Hultquist permalink
    January 17, 2014 8:07 pm

    I’m sorry about the image/link. I wasn’t expecting that.

  6. Andy DC permalink
    January 17, 2014 10:32 pm

    It is so intellectually lazy to blame every unusual weather event on “climate change”, when the real reason can be totally unrelated to climate change or even just coincidence.

  7. Brian H permalink
    January 18, 2014 5:46 am

    But it’s natural! River silts up, a new meander forms, or an oxbow is cut off, rinse, repeat.

  8. Filbert Cobb permalink
    January 18, 2014 4:55 pm

    An enquiry is in order to determine the extent to which flooding on the Levels has worsened as a result of the deliberate raising of the water table to recreate wetlands (farmers bribed with public funding, natch) – leaving even less water-holding capacity in the soils to act as a buffer against excess winter rainfall. In addition to the use of farmland as a flood reserve to protect Taunton and Bridgwater. RSPB, LAs, Defra, EA, NE please step forward

    • January 19, 2014 5:43 pm

      The farmers are slowly being strangled by the “re-wilders” – and many farmers would like to show these re-wilders what damage they’re doing but said activists aren’t green – they’re yellow and prefer lurking in the shadows.

      This must sting the farmers as LAs in the levels contribute non trivial amounts of money which they see spent on new vehicles and relentlessly more “traffic cop” hiviz PPE for EA officials – but not a digger or a dredger in sight.

      Chris Smith – EA chairperson of “The Wrong Type of Rain” and other stupid pronouncements is running away an about 8 weeks time to spend his ill gotten fatso pension – it’ll be interesting ito see if they can dig up an even bigger boob to head this dysfunctional, expensive, ineffective monster.

  9. Jeremy permalink
    January 30, 2014 10:50 am

    “Others villagers agree this is why the flood levels have risen catastrophically. They blame the Environment Agency for neglecting the local rivers, which have now silted up so much that they can only carry a third of the water they used to. The theory is that this leaves the rivers unable to cope in the rain when extra water is also sent from Taunton and Bridgwater, from where it is pumped away to protect new homes built on former floodplains.”

    this does not make sense – Bridgewater and Muchelney are both on the River Parrett but Bridgewater is 10 miles downstream of Muchelney and no-one is pumping water upstream. Taunton is on the Tone which a tributary of the the Parrett that joins it several miles downstream of Muchelney. There is no way water can be “sent from Taunton and Bridgwater” to Muchelney. A better conspiracy theory might be something like the EA has reduced dredging in order to pond water around Muchelney and reduce the peak rate of flows on the Parrett and so the floodrisk to Bridgewater (where half the to0wn is on the floodplain)

  10. Simon permalink
    January 30, 2014 10:56 pm

    I have read the usual blurb on why the levels flood………..luckily I do not live there & my heart felt sympathies to those suffering.
    AM I THE ONLY PERSON WHO SEE’S THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM???THE JET STREAM HAS MOVED SOUTH FROM SCOTLAND TO OVER THE SOUTH OF ENGLAND dumping the Atlantic here………….with 2 ‘once in a lifetime’ flooding events 2 years in a row??
    BUT THE INTERESTING QUESTION IS WHY???…………………… Google HAARP & get About 2,610,000 results (0.25 seconds)

    ANOTHER INTERESTING POINT HAARP WAS CREATED AROUND 1997 BEFORE “global warming” EXISTED????? HOW STRANGE!Create a problem & provide a solution-tried & tested by governments ALL over The World.

    • Roger Cole permalink
      January 7, 2015 10:19 pm

      Oh dear.

  11. Mark P permalink
    January 30, 2014 11:59 pm

    December 2013 rainfall: Looking at the monthly figure is meaningless – most of the month was quite dry, with almost all that rainfall happening from the 23rd onwards. So there was a huge inundation in a short period. Hence floods. Which didn’t have a chance to drain before the heavy Jan 2014 rainfall.

    • January 31, 2014 11:46 am

      The rain began in earnest on the 12th Dec. According to Weather Underground, there was about as much rain from the 12th to 22nd, as 23rd to 31st.
      Obviously the rain has continued into January, and I will be looking at that when all the numbers are in, but the post specifically addresses the floods as they were at the start of January.

  12. Vernon Evenson permalink
    February 4, 2014 9:44 am

    The rainfall is not the problem nor are the rivers. The Levels should be drained by the sluices (to the sea as the tide falls) but the sluices have been abandoned in the partially open position since the EA took over. That way not much of the water on the low-lying ground escapes as the tide falls and it all floods back as the tide rises. Just simple incompetence by the EA. The locals should take a class action against the EA for gross negligence.

    Vernon E

  13. Brian permalink
    February 4, 2014 6:01 pm

    Very interesting and well researched post. Have you contacted the Environment Agency for datasets of flow rates at measuring stations along the major rivers? It might be interesting to plot them against precipitation.

  14. Gino Salvatore permalink
    February 8, 2014 10:44 pm

    Hopefully the good people of Somerset and other Tory heartlands in this beautiful country will vote UKIP in 2015 – since Labour and Libdem are not options – and save us all from the flood of imigration as well as the cruel cuts on drainage chanel clearance that destroys peoples homes.


  1. A Look at the MoD's #Floods Response - Think Defence

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: