Angry and frustrated is how farmers down on the Somerset Levels feel. And who can blame them?
Farming can be challenging enough at the best of times and these farmers certainly aren’t facing the best of times. What they are actually facing is a sea of floodwater which shows little sign of going away.
Thousands of hectares have been under water since before Christmas, wreaking devastation to their lives and businesses. It isn’t even the first time it has been like this – the area has suffered from persistent and extensive flooding for the past two or three years.
No one could have done anything about the amount of rain that has fallen in recent weeks. But the Environment Agency (EA) could and should have done more to prevent the situation that has now arisen.
For more than 15 years farmers and local residents have been warning that rivers in the area need re-dredging in order to increase water flows.
“Large-scale dredging may bring challenges but surely it can’t be impossible to balance the needs of the farming community and local residents with conservation.”
This is the same common complaint made by people in other areas blighted by flooding, but the situation on the Somerset Levels is particularly acute. And the EA’s refusal to listen means locals are now facing an intolerable situation with some farmers’ land almost completely submerged.
DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson made a flying visit to the area this week and agreed the rivers do need to be dredged. He promised a plan to deal with the flooding would be drawn up in the next six weeks, but there was no detail on how it will be funded.
To date it feels like no one in DEFRA or the EA seems to recognise the severity of the problem. It has taken the government until this week to agree this is a “major incident”.
The EA argues dredging rivers such as the Parrett and Tone would not stop the area flooding given the sheer amount of rain that has fallen.
However, it is estimated the rivers are only at about 60% capacity because of the level of silt build-up. It is common sense that while dredging might not stop the flooding it would reduce its frequency and seriousness.
Arguments have also been put forward about the environmental impact of dredging the rivers and the effect it might have on wildlife. The Somerset Wildlife Trust and RSPB say that while some dredging might be beneficial, they worry that plans put forward by the Royal Bath and West Society go too far and could harm wildlife-rich wetlands.
Of course, this needs to be debated. Yet how much wildlife and habitat has already been destroyed by the waters? Large-scale dredging may bring challenges but surely it can’t be impossible to balance the needs of the farming community and local residents with conservation.
What farmers need now is for DEFRA to translate its promises into meaningful action. The prevaricating has to end now.