A Green World

Monday, 17 February 2014

Floods - Can We, and Should We Fix Them?

Steph McWilliam (UKIP) is a fellow councillor who has asked for my thoughts on a Spectator article by Christopher Booker "Revealed: how green ideology turned a deluge into a flood". This article blames the flooding of the Somerset Levels on the Environment Agency, stopping dredging for idealogical reasons after Baroness Young, from the RSPB and Natural England, took over as chief executive in 2002; although the article says the decline started in 1996. The EU is also blamed for regulations on silt.

Well here are some of my thoughts; a bit rambling at times, a bit technical at others, and with lots of links to better information that I'll try to summarise. Accurate good science tends to be omitted from the headlines, so is difficult to find in the media, but it is out there, and I hope I've found some good links.

More than forty years ago, as a child living in Portishead I spent many enjoyable hours angling in the rhynes of the Gordano valley in North Somerset, so I had an early interest in reclaimed land and drainage. My history teacher said that the Gordano valley had been reclaimed from the sea by the Romans. All I knew was that it wasn't unusual for Portishead High Street to get flooded, up at the end near the docks.

As far as dredging to stop flooding the Somerset Levels goes, there is a clue in the name; they are level, flat and difficult to drain, so will always flood. Expert hydrologists hopefully know more than me about this, and they don't think dredging is the answer. See Expert Reaction to Somerset Flooding. I really like the idea of creating a Bridgewater Lagoon, to generate green energy and increase the gradient of the flow. The BBC also have "How do you stop flooding" with some nice diagrams. Of course the key need, of reducing this extreme rainfall, the major cause of flooding, can only be addressed by fixing climate change, which requires a global solution. Until then, not much can be done for the Levels, and certainly not for this winter's vast quantity of rain.

The Thames flooding differs from the Somerset Levels in that the Thames has better control over who gets flooded. When I lived in Reading 25 years ago it was well known that different stretches were being selected to hold flood water, to protect downstream towns.

As far as the EU and silt from dredging, I know nothing, but the internet found a paper on the impact of european union environmental law on dredging. A quick scan finds "EU law does not deal specifically with dredged material, nor is there any intent to do so". As long as it's not polluted, I don't see why freshwater dredged material can't be spread on fields or used to raise banks.

As a long-term member and supporter of the RSPB, I've also taken an interest in their projects on the Somerset levels, such as The Great Crane Project and RSPB: Ham Wall. It looks like the cranes are finding it difficult right now, while Ham Wall isn't fairing too badly on their side of the Polden Ridge. So there is variety of impact from flooding even within the Levels. From the RSPB, Martin Harper's blog has a number of important points. I would emphasise the importance of the long-term plans (or the lack of them) and planning for the whole catchment area. Increased vegetation on the uplands, reintroducing beavers and other measures can slow the inflow of water, but that only works for one-off heavy rainfall events.

This winter has been one storm after another, although here in the hills of Cornwall the rain seems to have blown rapidly over to Somerset, so this winter I didn't get the flooding that soaked my kitchen just before Christmas 2012. So that's two wet winters in a row. Does that mean it will be as wet next winter, and every winter from now on? Of course not. Next winter could easily be the driest since records began, and I wouldn't be at all surprised, or it could be even wetter. With Global Warming, a warmer atmosphere picks up more water from the oceans, giving heavier rainfall, but a warmer atmosphere is also more chaotic, giving greater extremes of weather.

As a member of the Green Party I see that it is said we are calling for the prime minister to sack cabinet ministers who deny man-made climate change. If only he would. These deniers of the obvious are as out-of-date as flat-earthers. This Biff Vernon blog explores the statistical significance of extreme events, and this Guardian article looks at how the old party politicians have ignored the long-term problem of climate change.

The other thing that we need to consider is adapting to climate change. In the same way that Steph and I, although poles apart politically, successfully work together on parish business, different interests need to strike a balance. The Spectator article is having a go at green (with a small g) environmentalists for a blinkered ideology, but all the sources that I've found want a sustainable mix that satisfies as many interests as possible.

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