Southwest villages ignite climate debate: retreat or fight as the sea advances?

Flood-hit Britons fear worse to come

by Jill Lawless


As children climb into boats to get to school and scores of hoses pump floodwaters from fields day and night, one corner of southwest England is trying to reclaim its land.

Other Britons are watching them and wondering how much and for how long you can fight the sea.

In the village of Thorney on the Somerset Levels — a marshy, low-lying region dotted with farmland and villages and crisscrossed by rivers — thousands of hectares have been under water for weeks.

Some villages have been cut off for a month. Residents who have been forced to make long detours or take boats to school, work or grocery shops are frustrated and angry. Some blame government budget cuts and inept environmental bureaucracy. Others point to climate change. Some wonder if flood defenses for major cities like nearby Bristol or London will take precedence over protecting their rural hamlets.

“I’m used to seeing floods on the Levels, but this is just something else,” said 28-year-old Kris Davies, who was dragging sodden carpet from his cottage in Thorney. He, his wife and two daughters have just returned after a month staying with family members in a nearby town.

He said that when the area flooded less severely last winter, “we were told it was a one-in-100-year occurrence.”

“The following year, it happens again — only worse!” he said.

The disaster has put the Levels at the center of a debate about the effects of climate change and the cost of preserving an agricultural landscape that has been created over the centuries since medieval monks first began draining the wetlands around the nearby Glastonbury Abbey.

Meteorologists say Britain’s future will involve more extreme weather.

Rainstorms have battered Britain since December, and this January was the wettest in more than a century in southern England. The region was forecast to be hit by more rain and gale-force winds starting Monday.

Floods have already inundated an area covering some 65 sq. km. The River Parrett and other waterways have burst their banks, and fields that normally sustain crops, dairy herds and beef cattle are under more than a meter of water.

Many roads are impassible, and the village of Muchelney is now an island reached only by boats run by firefighters.

On one road, the top of a car peeks out above the water.

Davies’ home in Thorney, a hamlet of sandstone-colored buildings and thatched cottages, is normally a few minutes’ drive from Muchelney. It now takes 45 minutes to get there unless you take a boat.

“Having to kayak to your front door is a bit of a novelty,” Davies said. “The kids loved it for a couple of days, but the novelty has worn off.”

No one in Somerset thinks floods can be avoided. Much of this land is below sea level, and it is as marshy and porous as a sponge.

But many locals blame this year’s devastation on the Environment Agency’s decision in the 1990s to abandon a policy of routinely dredging local rivers, which are now clogged with silt and are running at between one-third and two-thirds of capacity.

They say this disaster has been building for years.

“A really carefully constructed landscape — which works quite well, which has worked for 800 years — has suddenly been left untended,” said Andrew Lee, founder of an advocacy group called Stop the Floods.

“There are fields I can see from my house that were underwater for 11 months between 2012 and 2013,” he said. “The anger around here is that it has taken another major disaster for it to get any attention at all.”

Some say spending cuts by Britain’s Conservative-led government have made things worse. The environment department has seen its budget reduced by £500 million ($820 million) since 2010.

The Environment Agency says budget cuts have not weakened its flood protection efforts. But agency chief Chris Smith, in an article for Monday’s Daily Telegraph, conceded that the relentless demand on resources means “difficult decisions” about what to save: “town or country, front rooms or farmland?”

The government also argues that dredging alone is not the solution. Dredging speeds up the flow rate of rivers and can cause flooding downstream, and it disturbs the habitats of fish, otters and water voles, an endangered species of rodent.

That attitude infuriates some locals.

“They have got to stop worrying about the water voles, stop worrying about the birds — just do the job,” said Conservative lawmaker Ian Liddell-Grainger.

Somerset’s flooded landscape has lasted long enough to become a tourist attraction. People clamber up the muddy hill known as Burrow Mump to look out over fields that now resemble an inland sea, with the tops of hedges, gates and trees poking out from the water.

The waters have receded only slightly, despite having 65 pumps running around the clock to drain almost 1.5 million tons of water a day from the land. Prime Minister David Cameron, stung by the uproar, has promised to resume dredging.

Some environmentalists and scientists say that in the long run, as ocean levels rise, it is a doomed effort. They talk about “a managed retreat” — abandoning some farmland and letting marsh and sea reclaim it.

“Retreat is the only sensible policy,” Colin Thorne, a flood expert at Nottingham University, told the Sunday Telegraph. “If we fight nature, we will lose in the end.”

Others, though, want to be as ambitious as those medieval monks who transformed a marsh into valuable farmland.

“You’ve got to think big,” said John Wood, a parish councilor, looking out from an elevated churchyard as the sun glinted on the silvery floodwaters.

“It looks beautiful,” he said. He asked, why not just keep the water and collect it in giant reservoirs? Then “you’ve got boating lakes, you’ve got fishing. Tourists will come.”

He says that is a better idea than rows of pumps fruitlessly trying to compete with nature at the current cost of £100,000 ($160,000) a day.

“What are we doing at the moment? We’re pouring bank notes into that river and watching it go out to sea,” he said.