The RSPB have been accused in some quarters of having more interest in bird life than human life. Here, the charity's head of policy Mark Robins explains their policy for the Levels
Once again, the Somerset Levels are under water – including 1,750 acres of the RSPB's farmed wetlands at West Sedgemoor and Greylake. Living in a major flood plain, generations of Somerset people have learned to adapt to the floods, but the scale of flooding over the last two years tells us we need to look urgently at how we manage water, and how we make ourselves resilient to climate change.
We must give priority to protecting lives, homes and critical infrastructure. The floods have caused appalling damage to some homes and businesses. However, we should remember that despite being severely tested over the last 15 months, the system has performed well to prevent greater damage, and we need to be careful not to put even more homes in greater danger just to protect the flood plain.
Farmland, of course, bears the brunt of the flooding, and we should recognise the critical role that it plays in flood protection. Currently, 65 million cubic metres of water are stored on the flood plain, protecting our homes and businesses from even worse.
The last two years warn us that we must face up to what's coming – significant long term changes in rainfall patterns, including wetter winters and more frequent spring and summer downpours as well. These have implications for flood risk to our settlements, to how we farm upstream in the catchment and on the flood plain, and of course, to the Levels' wildlife habitats. How should we best respond to increasing amounts of water on the flood plain?
There's no magic wand to sort the problem. A range of measures is needed. The main rivers need to be kept working to convey floodwater out to sea as part of wider water management. Dredging may play a part, but Environment Agency studies show that it would have limited benefits on its own. Half a century on, a backwards looking 1960s style dredge may not be sustainable – environmentally or economically. There has to be a smarter, effective package of actions that leads to a real shift in resilience across the Levels. Let's avoid a knee-jerk reaction in positioning a dredge as the only solution, and place this in the context of a really fit-for-purpose package of measures, that together offer a much brighter future for the Levels.
Homes, businesses and roads can be helped to be more secure against floodwater. Farmland upstream of the Levels needs to hold on to water for longer; soil must be less compacted and more able to absorb rainfall, and temporary pools should be filled once the soil is saturated. Mid-catchment forestry can help. Alongside these farmland measures towns must be designed so that urban drainage systems delay water on its way into rivers. These measures have worked well elsewhere, and slowing water in this way would stop more of the rain from every storm arriving immediately in the Levels.
On the Levels, help is needed to better prepare the villages, roads and farmland for flooding. Communities need cost-effective local flood defence schemes, timely warnings and practical help during floods. Farm businesses need to be more resilient to flood water. Is it really sensible, for instance, long-term, in the lowest, most flood risked areas, for some farm businesses to continue to rely on flood-sensitive silage? Surely greater resilience lies with encouraging more flood-tolerant grasslands. And we need to distribute water more sensibly around the Levels – making more use of the River Sowy to remove water, and greater use of those parts of the Parrett and Brue flood plains which can drain by gravity to store water.
National resources for flood management are limited and understandably are focused on protecting people, especially in the larger settlements. These rules mean that we cannot expect more money for the Levels. But we can expect the Government to plan carefully and invest for the future. Taxpayers' money spent by the Environment Agency and Natural England, the Government agencies responsible for both flood management and the natural environment, needs to fund change.
Designing the best package of change, for a fair, effective transition, that works for all interests in the Levels, is the challenge. In a wildlife-rich farmed wetland nature can be an ally, not a victim. Government is central to this shift, and the agencies must bring their expertise and resources and work with everyone locally to deliver a more secure future.
With this in mind, the staff and budget cuts we're seeing at both the Environment Agency and Natural England are falling at the worst possible time. Almost 1,700 job losses are expected at the Environment Agency and Natural England is barely half the size it was five years ago. The Government agencies responsible for the Levels are being cut, just when the communities on the Levels need them most.