Flooded homes, marooned villagers and an inland sea should embarrass the Government into paying up for river dredging, the leader of the Somerset Levels Relief Fund said last night.
Edwin White, former chairman of the Royal Bath & West Society, renewed his call for action as boats floating over sunken vehicles carried vital medical supplies and food to 100 villagers at Muchelney near Langport.
Just down the road at Thorney nine homes have flooded, and hundreds of acres of farmland are under water. While some winter flooding on the Levels is expected, the return of ‘freak’ weather is making life more difficult, with more road closures and a knock-on effect on the local economy.
One resident of Muchelney, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “We’ve been completely cut off. We’re not able to get out at the moment. The only way out is by boat.
“There are a couple of boats running to get supplies – they are out at the moment collecting a big Tesco delivery for us all.
“There has also been a boat service arranged for children who need to get to school – at the moment it’s so deep you can only see the tip of car aerials when they try to drive through.
“It looks like it’s going to be at least another two weeks until we are able to start using the roads again and that depends on how the weather is in that time.
“It’s tragic that many of the people who have just returned home following last year’s flood have been flooded again.
“All of this could be prevented if the river next to us was cleaned out.”
The Environment Agency stopped the annual dredging of the rivers Parrett and Tone 18 years ago, saying it was not economic, and since then the rivers have become so clogged that last year they could only 60 per cent of their capacity.
After the torrential rains of summer and winter 2012 the Agency agreed that dredging could make a difference but it could not find all the money to do the job.
The Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal Committee and Somerset County Council each pledged £300,000, and Defra promised around £350,000, but with a £2 million funding gap still looming the Royal Bath & West Society launched the Somerset Levels Relief Fund last September. It aims to raise £1 million and “shame” the Government into match-funding.
Yesterday Mr White said: “Surely this must embarrass the Government to look again at providing the funds that are so badly needed.
“From the Royal Bath & West Society’s perspective the appeal is gaining momentum and we have a working party that is trying to draw all sides together, from the farmers and agencies to conservationists so that all agree a strategy for the future.
“We are also about to engage a fundraiser but the Royal Bath & West Society itself, through its council members, members and supporters should be the first to make contributions. The Society itself as a charity cannot comfortably commit our own charity funds.”
It was the prolonged summer rain of 2012 that caused severe problems for farmers, killing growing grass and leaving them with big summer feed bills, and little or silage for winter.
The Environment Agency began some dredging on the river Tone near Burrowbridge last October, and the same month the River Brue catchment area became one of seven areas across the country where silted rivers and streams may be dredged without the need for a licence. Environment Secretary Owen Paterson launched the scheme after visiting flood-hit areas.
Environment Agency staff have worked round the clock across the region in the current crisis, bringing in extra temporary pumps to protect properties, monitoring rivers and tides and alerting communities to the risks of flooding. But the river levels have sometimes been too high for pumps to operate.
Burnham-on-Sea Rescue Boat volunteers picked up vital prescriptions for Muchelney villagers, who are cut off for the second winter running. The team also ferried out a large supply of groceries packed up by the Langport branch of Tesco which is running a “tab” for villagers. Navigating the flooded Langport-Muchelney road was a delicate operation.
BARB chairman Mark Newman said: “We don’t know what is lying underneath the water, but we do know there are two cars, and part of a tree. We are warmly welcomed every time we go back across and we have made some really good friendships.”
A second boat operated by Grab-A-Cab and Our Taxis at Taunton ferried groceries donated by Taunton’s Asda store.
Helen Walker, who owns the local shop with her husband Graham, said: “Nobody is getting out at the moment.
“When it has flooded in the past we have used our tractor with a trailer on the back to help people get in, out and around the village.
“But at the moment the flood water is a few feet high and the tractor can’t get through.
“We own the only shop in the village. There are some lovely people in kayaks who have been going out to get more supplies.
“We’ve kind of got the bare skeleton of supplies at the moment but the freezers are full of meat so there is plenty to go around.
“We had a big grocery delivery come today so most people are alright.”