Skip to content

The Somerset Flood Action Plan – Two Years On

January 5, 2016

By Paul Homewood 




Two years on, it is time to see what progress has been made with the Somerset Flood Action Plan.



This is the latest update from the Environment Agency:



The Somerset Levels and Moors lie between the Quantock and Mendip hills in central Somerset.

Much of the area has been historically drained for agricultural and residential purposes. The Levels are cut in 2 by the Polden Hills which run parallel with the Mendip Hills further to the north. The River Parrett drains the southern section and the Rivers Axe and Brue the northern.


The need for improved flood protection

In early 2014 the Somerset Levels and Moors experienced widespread flooding, particularly within the Parrett and Tone river catchments. It is the largest flood event ever known.

The Environment Agency estimated there were more than 65 million cubic metres of floodwater covering an area of 65 square kilometres. Residents of Northmoor (Moorland, Chadmead and Fordgate) had to leave their homes at the height of the flood and many communities were cut off by floodwater.

Records of flooding go back as far as the 1600s and some of the more significant events over the last 100 years occurred in 2012, 2000, 1997, 1960 and 1929.


Repairs to flood defences maintained by the Environment Agency

As a result of the winter 2013/2014 flooding, there were nearly 50 assets (embankments, pumping stations, sluices, flood gates and coastal flood defences) across Somerset that needed to be repaired before winter 2014/2015.

Some of the these repairs were included in the 20 year flood action plan for the Somerset Levels and Moors developed in March 2014, and also the wider Somerset area.

New and more efficient pumps have been installed by the Environment Agency at some key sites and in some areas permanent defences have been built to replace temporary ones used previously.

The standard of flood protection has been restored at the majority of sites, but the Environment Agency is working through the winter to make defences more resilient.

The Environment Agency has contingency plans in place to ensure no communities are at an increased flood risk compared to before the winter of 2013/2014.


New flood defences

The Environment Agency is building a new permanent defence at Aller Drove to replace the temporary defence installed last winter. The work includes raising the road and installing a new kerb, to help reduce flood risk to properties most at risk at Aller.

After working closely with the community at Westonzoyland, the Environment Agency is building a new permanent defence to replace the temporary defence used last winter. This includes a new sheet piled wall which will help reduce flood risk to properties in Westonzoyland.


River Sowy & King’s Sedgemoor Drain enhancement options 2016

The Environment Agency has completed an initial investigation of different options to enhance the capacity of the River Sowy and King’s Sedgemoor Drain. By increasing the capacity of the river system the aim is to reduce the risk, depth and duration of future flooding. The Environment Agency has carried out this assessment on behalf of the Somerset Levels and Moors 20 year flood action plan partners.


Parrett Barrier

A report has been published reviewing the options for a Parrett Barrier to manage flood risk in Bridgwater and the surrounding areas. This review looked at whether the recent flooding, updated data or other evidence might influence the preferred option or timescale for a proposed barrier.


The 20-year flood action plan identifies the need to review the effectiveness of dredging and identify locations for further dredging across the Levels and Moors.

The 8km dredge of the Tone and Parrett was completed in October 2014, and a project is underway to identify possible additional locations where dredging is, in future, likely to be a cost effective way of reducing flood risk. This will provide the evidence base to support future decisions on whether or not to dredge these sites as part of the 20 year plan.


Other flood risk management options

Dredging can be a solution for reducing flood risk in the right place; it is just 1 option for flood risk management and is not suitable for all sites. There are many alternative ways of reducing flood risk and some may be more effective than dredging, depending on the characteristics of the watercourses. Other solutions could include building new banks, setting back banks, improving pumping capacity or additional maintenance including weed control and the removal of blockages.


Assessing the costs of additional dredging

For locations where modelling demonstrates an overall flood risk benefit, the next step is to consider the criteria that will influence the costs of dredging, such as the working method, silt disposal options, and environmental considerations. A broad assessment of the cost effectiveness of dredging would then be provided, alongside an appraisal of alternative options that could give the same, or better, flood risk benefits.


Next steps

A summary of all the assessments for each of the 10 locations will be published on this website. There are currently no funds allocated for future dredging, but funding partnerships may be able to secure some money for some of this work in future years.


Apart from the temporary repairs, the main actions identified as necessary are threefold:


1) Dredging

This has so far concentrated on the Tone and Parrett stretch around Burrowbridge, as the Flood Plan demanded:





The difference between the 1960s and 2014 can be clearly seen on the Telegraph’s image below.


Composite image of the River Parrett in Burrowbridge in the early 1960's (top left) when dredging was carried out on a regular basis, a recent picture before the current flooding event showing the encroaching river banks (bottom left) and during the recent flooding

Composite image of the River Parrett in Burrowbridge in the early 1960’s (top left) when dredging was carried out on a regular basis, a recent picture before the current flooding event showing the encroaching river banks (bottom left) and during the recent flooding


While acknowledging that dredging is not the only solution and does not work in all areas, the Environment Agency is clear on the benefits of the dredge so far:


With dredging completed and the temporary pumping in place, fewer houses are predicted by the model to flood if there were to be a repeat of the exceptional weather conditions experienced in 2013/14. If the same exceptional weather conditions reoccurred, flooding would still occur but there would be benefits as follows:

1) significant benefits to Northmoor and Saltmoor;
a. the completed dredging alone would help to reduce the risk of flooding to between 50 and 80 of the 142 properties reported to the Environment Agency as having flooded in 2013/14 in Northmoor and Saltmoor;
b. having additional temporary pumping in place alongside the completed dredging would provide significant additional benefit. It could help to reduce the risk of flooding to nearly 130 of the 142 homes which were affected on these moors in 2013/14 and reduce the time of flooding from the 6-7 weeks experienced in 2013/14 to 1 week for those that are still at risk.

Further potential dredging locations have been identified, particularly the Northmoor Pumping Station to the M5 bridge, but these depend on funding decisions.


2) River Sowy & King’s Sedgemoor Drain enhancement


Below is an extract from the Environment Agency Improvements Plan in December 2014:





Some improvements have been carried out during 2015, and more are planned for this year including channel widening.


3) Pumping

Key to the successful operation of the KSD is the pumping system at Dunball. The Somerset Levels are so low that the rivers cannot normally drain to the sea at high tide.

It has therefore been vital to provide a permanent pumping system at Dunball, able to pump water into the estuary at all times.

Since April 2014, the Environment Agency has spent £2.5 million improving pumping infrastructure at Dunball, as well as Saltmoor and Northmoor.




The example of the Somerset Levels shows that there are no simple answers to flooding, and that many factors play a part, including dredging and channel widening.

But key to the new approach has been the creation of the Somerset Rivers Authority, which is run by a Board of partners from the five District Councils, Somerset County Council, the Environment Agency, the Parrett and Axe Brue Internal Drainage Boards, the Wessex Regional Flood & Coastal Committee and Natural England.

The SRA’s purpose, according to its website, is to deliver higher standards of flood protection than would be funded nationally, and to create better flood protection and resilience against further flooding by joint planning and delivery.

In other words, decisions will now be made at a local level, by people who understand the problems and solutions, and with a clear objective in mind of improving flood protection.

There is much work still to do, and the Levels will never be totally free of floods. Nevertheless, locals tell me that the work done so far has prevented any flooding so far in this wet winter.

  1. David Richardson permalink
    January 5, 2016 7:42 pm

    Thought this website interesting – h/t to The Bish over at Bishop Hill

    Especially the “Urban myths” section in the right-hand frame – which was the subject of the Bish’s article.

    Many will have seen but some may not.

  2. fretslider permalink
    January 5, 2016 7:49 pm

    I wonder how much money was saved by not dredging – thanks to the European Water Framework – and how that compares to the cost of the damage caused by preventable flooding in Somerset and the North

    • January 5, 2016 8:03 pm

      Wrote an eponymous essay on this. The dredging originally planned for 2008 ( but scrubbed) would have cost £4.5 million. The 2013 damages against the EA exceed £100 million.

      • fretslider permalink
        January 5, 2016 8:20 pm

        Well, that’s one year’s dredging. I guess if you multiply that by 15 you get a rough figure of ~£68 million, still well short of the damages.

      • saveenergy permalink
        January 5, 2016 10:20 pm

        2013-2008 = 5 x 4.5 = £22.5 million saved
        £100 million damages
        £77.5 million loss + all the misery

        Chris Smith & the team of ‘experts’ who ignored all advice should be held personally accountable, & pay the money back.

        In China that would be jail time or death.

      • January 6, 2016 12:23 am

        Very good extreme calculation. But dredging does NOT have to be done every year. How often depends on the specific waterway siltation rate. So the net negative is much worse than you have imagined. Highest regards.

  3. saveenergy permalink
    January 5, 2016 7:51 pm

    “decisions will now be made at a local level, by people who understand the problems and solutions, and with a clear objective in mind of improving flood protection.”

    What !!
    just like they used to do before the ‘Environment Agency got its hands on the money to pay the likes of Chris Smith

  4. Christopher Booker permalink
    January 5, 2016 10:49 pm

    It was interesting to see the Environment Agency’s spin on what has happened near where I live in Somerset since the disastrous flooding of the Somerset Moors and Levels in Jan-Feb 2014. But there is a huge missing dimension to their account.
    They mention the beneficial effect of dredging the River Parrett, the resumption of pumping at Dunball, the settingt up of a new Somerset Rivers Authority and the putting back of drainage management into the hands of local drainage bodiee
    Not one of these things would have happened if the then Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson had not come down to Somerset at the end of January 2014 (at my instigation) to get briefed by a team of local experts (farmers and engineers who had worked for years on the local drainage boards) on what had gone wrong, and what needed to be done to ensure that this disaster was not repeated.
    Within less than 24 hours he came up with the outlines of a 20-year masterplan, including the urgent resumption of dredging (abandone since 1996 by the Environment Agency), the restarting of pumping at Dunball (where the key pumping station had been closed on the orders of the bird-watching environment minister Elliott Morley in 2005) and the setting up of a Somerset Rivers Authority which would take back most of the powers and responsibilities of the local drainage boards which had been usurped by the Environment Agency.
    Everything in his plan was designed to roll back the catastrophic policy implemented by the Agency, most notably under the chairmanship between 2000 and 2008 of Baroness Young of Old Scone, which misused EU legislation (including the 2000 Water Framework directive. the 2007 Floods directive and the Habitats directive) to shift the priority of water management on the Levels from protection of homes,farmland and the local population to the interests of “nature” and wildlife. As it was famously put bythe Baroness formerlu head of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Natural England, the recipe for “instant wildlife” was “just add water”.
    The result of the supposedly “wildlife friendly” policy introduced by the Baroness and the Agency was not just the unprecedented flooding of 2012 and 2014 but an ecological catastrophe in 2014. in which every kind of wildlife was killed off by the deliberately engineered floodwaters.
    On our local West Country BBC News tonight, it was reported that, thanks to all the measures put in train since 2014, all the 60 pumps on the Levels are now working again, the dredged Parrett is taking water away and such floodwater as there has been is not causing no unusual problems. But for the Evironment Agency now to take credit for a policy every detail of which was insisted on by Mr Paterson as the only way to undo the havoc its own policies had been inflicting on Somerset for 18 years is barefaced cheek beyond belief.

    • Ben Vorlich permalink
      January 5, 2016 11:33 pm

      There was an interesting item on ITV News At Ten last night, regarding Dutch flood prevention. Since the 1950s they have had a continuous planned defence which involves a huge expense on dredging rivers, barriers protecting Rotterdam and other ports. Truly impressive presumably ignoring any directives putting the national wellbeing at risk.

      • David Richardson permalink
        January 6, 2016 7:29 pm

        Yes I saw that Ben – Truly impressive is exactly right and made the UK look like a bit dropped off the edge. The lack of engineering and science knowledge (or even interest) amongst the body politic in the UK has been obvious for decades but now it really is coming home to roost in a big way.

    • John F. Hultquist permalink
      January 6, 2016 2:28 am

      Thanks, a nice addition to the story.
      I’m from Washington State but on the dry side of the Cascade Crest.
      Early settlers found the floodplains attractive, especially over in Puget Sound.
      Now urban development is bringing quicker runoff and higher peaks to floods.
      A long history of dredging, such as in the UK, is not part of the cultural here.

    • philip walling permalink
      January 6, 2016 10:45 am

      And for his pains Owen Paterson was sacked by Cameron and replaced by the ludicrous Ms Truss, who is presumably more compliant with the green blob.

      It is important to add that where flood prevention really matters, in the Fens, where it would be catastrophic to our national vegetable production, the Environment Agency was not allowed anywhere near the local drainage boards, which still operate effectively.

      Wherever the eco-warriors and dredging-deniers at the EA have taken over, flooding is routine. And even if it is caused by ‘climate change’ that is more reason to dredge and widen the channels.

      In a properly regulated society the head of the Environment Agency would now have been sacked on two grounds: incompetence, and more importantly misrepresentation.

      No doubt, following the precedent of ‘Chris’ Smith he’ll get a peerage.

    • January 6, 2016 1:41 pm

      In the early 1980’s, my late parents and I were privileged to be on a very small cruise ship through the Panama Canal. It was built when my mother was a child and her lifelong dream was to traverse the Panama Canal. I was initially lukewarm, but what a trip it turned out to be as we crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific side. Dredges were numerous along the way as constant dredging is necessary to keep the waterway from filling with the unstable volcanic soils. As a note, they brought an historian onboard to narrate the canal trip. As we approached the first lock at dawn, he announced that The Canberra was coming up behind us. We had sailed on its sister ship, The Oriana, from Hawaii to Vancouver in 1962 and I met my Australian girlfriend onboard.

  5. Peter R Blower permalink
    January 6, 2016 8:38 am

    “2014 – largest flood event ever known”. What rubbish, they should take a look at the medieval maps of Somerset !

    Dredge, dredge and keep on dredging. Don’t forget to use the valuable silt for embankment / bank stabilisation purposes and to publicise this defiance of the EU.

  6. Graeme No.3 permalink
    January 6, 2016 10:24 am

    When I headed out into the world of employment my (late) father pointed out that he had graduated as a Civil Engineer in Structures and Hydraulics. He pointed out that neither had been much use to him in his career, except that he had retained from the later subject the conviction that water ran down hill. He remarked that it was surprising how often he had to remind people of this fact, even argue about it.
    He suggested I keep it in mind, and yes I found it useful. I saved money not buying several properties because this had been disregarded and once found myself in a room of people, many otherwise intelligent, who had other ideas. I won that debate to my cost, much as a Owen Paterson did at a more elevated position.

  7. January 6, 2016 12:17 pm

    Received this as a parish council member in Somerset. What it says is that the severity of the flooding in the Levels in the past few yeas would have been hugely reduced if the EA was fit for purpose. It’s not. It never has been, and needs shutting down now. Sadly, the “Inside the Environment Agency” blog is no longer with us, but while it was, it detailed the waste, incompetence and laziness of many of the staff there.

  8. January 6, 2016 1:42 pm

    Just goes to show what you get when a centralized government of bureaucratic wizards runs the show while ignoring the local input–major flooding. Or name your disaster depending on the situation.

  9. A C Osborn permalink
    January 6, 2016 2:57 pm

    Paul, knowing how good you are at digging out data, do you think you could round of this report with December Rainfall figures for Somerset, in Comparison to previous rain fall values when flooding has occurred?
    It would provide some idea of just successful the work to date has been, as they must have quite a bit of rain during December.

  10. John Peter permalink
    January 6, 2016 3:29 pm

    Further to A C Osborn’s request above I would add a request for Paul Homewood to comment on the MET Office pronouncement that December 2015 was the wettest since records began (1910). What happened to Decembers preceding 1910? Other months (other than December)with greater rainfall? I smell a rat here.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: