Owen Paterson's visit to the Somerset Levels suggests that Government is at last taking the area's problems seriously, writes Anthony Gibson.
After the visit and the various meetings in which the Environment Secretary was involved, an outline of what action might be taken is beginning to emerge. Essentially, the Government would stump up the balance of the money needed to get the key stretches of the Parrett and Tone dredged this summer and autumn, provided agreement is reached locally on a wider long-term strategy for managing Somerset's water.
Once dredged, the rivers need to be kept reasonably clear of silt – no easy job, when every tide leaves behind another layer of sand and mud. Beyond that, much more needs to be done to reduce the speed and volume of run-off from the upper catchment, which stretches in a great arc all the way from the Brendon Hills in the west to Sherborne in the south, so that the rivers have less water to cope with all at once in the first place.
What to do in the flood plain itself – is a rather more vexed question. Leaving aside the fundamentalists who would like to see the flood defences taken down so that it reverts to a swamp, it boils down to a debate over the extent to which more frequent flooding should be accepted as a fact of Levels life. Some farmers believe that they should be able to grow flood-vulnerable crops like maize, even in the lowest, most flood-prone moors.
The other school of thought holds that an increasingly volatile climate has fundamentally altered the risk-reward ratio over large parts of the Levels, and farmers would be better off accepting that their land will be under water for some of each year, and plan accordingly.