Somerset Levels

Flooding in the Somerset Levels

In January and February 2014 flooding hit the Somerset Levels with such severity that the land area was reduced to little more than a group of large lakes. But how many of us knew what the Somerset Levels actually were before they hit the news in such a devastating way. The Somerset Levels are more correctly known as the Somerset Levels and Moors and are a sparsely populated wetland/coastal plain running North from the Blackdown Hills to the Mendip Hills in the central area of Somerset. The Somerset Levels are cut in half by the Polden Hills. The areas to the North are drained by the rivers Brue and Axe and the South by the River Parrett. A separate area the North of the Mendips is known as the North Somerset Levels.

 Flooding Somerset levelsMost Somerset Levels settlements are small villages hence the attractiveness for building new homes and in particular the tendency to build expensive new detached homes which following the 2014 floods were left marooned as small partially submerged islands. The Somerset Levels also comprise various small deserted settlements dating back to medieval times. One known as the Isle of Athelney was a very low island linked to East Lyng by a causeway and was used by Alfred the Great as a fort during his successful Battle of Ethandun in 878 after which it became a monastery. In more modern times Street with a population of 11,000 and Glastonbury with 8,800 residents are the central focal points for commerce and trade. Anyone who has visited the Somerset Levels area for the Glastonbury Festival will know how wet and muddy it is at the best of times. So the news that the Somerset Levels area has become completely submerged following very heavy and persistent rain will have come as no surprise to anyone. The town of Burrowbridge which was almost completely submerged in the 2014 floods lies inland on the River Parrett

Somerset Levels Origin, Character and Geography

Historically Peat has been extracted from the Somerset Levels and Teazel and Willow grown commercially. The Somerset Levels themselves are formed from the Marine Clay ‘Levels’ along the coast and inland peat based moors. Agriculturally about 30% is arable and the rest is grassland

The Somerset Levels are, as a consequence of their wetland nature, an area of international importance in terms of biodiversity They contain 32 sites of Special Scientific Interest, 12 of which are Special Protection Areas. The possibility of obtaining World Heritage Site Status was abandoned in 2010. The Somerset Levels support a vast variety of bird and plant species and are an important feeding ground for birds. The area is increasingly valued as a tourist destination. People have been draining the Somerset Levels since Norman times and in the Middle Ages the Monasteries at Muchelney, Athelney, and Glastonbury were responsible for most of the drainage arrangements. During the Second World War the artificial River Huntspill, was constructed as a Reservoir and now also serves as a drainage channel. The Sowy River between the King’s Sedgmoor Drain and the River Parrett was completed in 1972.

Flooding Somerset levelsThe Somerset Levels and Moors are mainly flat with the inland plains around ten feet above sea levels. The Somerset Levels themselves comprise the coastal clay and sand barrier area West of the M5 Motorway. Some areas known as ‘burtles’, are slightly raised up, and hills and ridges are present in higher parts. The Moors themselves all lie around 15 feet below peak tidal levels. The Somerset Levels peat deposits were laid down immediately during the period when the ice sheets melted at the end of the ice age. The area has always had a wetter climate than the rest of the country and has long been prone to Winter flooding usually in the form of melt water or occasionally in the form of seawater encroachment. The worst incident in recorded history was in 1607 when the Bristol Channel floods engulfed 200 square miles of land and drowned 2000 people. Entire villages were swept away. A more recent flood in 1872-1873, left over 100 square miles underwater from October to March. So the Somerset Levels flood of 2014 is not  exceptional and some argue that it has been caused more by drainage failure by the Environment Agency than by any exceptional weather. The Somerset Levels area has had significant rainfall in the last two or three years but by historic standards this is not known to be a freak volume. Locals are adamant that the cause of the problem has been the Environment Agency deliberately neglecting to dredge the rivers. Historically the Somerset Levels area itself has only been rendered habitable owing to human intervention and in recent years owing to its attractions as a living environment further new housing has been built up on the flood plain itself. This new building however has coincided with The Environment Agency abandoning the very activity that has made the Somerset Levels habitable at all, namely ensuring adequate drainage    

Flooding somerset levelsSomerset Levels Drainage and Sea Defences

Water levels are now managed by the Somerset Levels’ Internal Drainage Boards. The Somerset Levels and Moors area is only at the best of times, slightly above average sea levels. So the area is wholly below sea level for much of the time. But worse still from a drainage point of view the inland peat belt is below the coastal level and is below sea level all of the time. No proper records exist at all before the 13th century and it was only from Roman times that any pumping out of water and land reclamation was possible at all. Somerset Level Moor-land was only widely reclaimed from around the 12th and 13th century. The River Tone was diverted by the Abbot of Athelney. Currently the main drainage outlets are the King’s Sedgmoor Drain, and the Rivers  Yeo, Tone, Parrett, Huntstill, Axe, and the Brue

In recent years considerable debate has raged as to how to maintain the best method of drainage for the freshwater falling on the Somerset Levels area, but much of the attention has been focussed on improving the area as a habitat for wildlife. In the meantime however nature has taken its course and the area has been engulfed in flood water. Following previous sea defences having been overwhelmed in the early 1980s and serious flooding causing damage to property and livestock having ensued the sea defences were belatedly improved. Now that similar freshwater flooding in 2012 and the more serious incident in 2014 have caused even worse damage no doubt the same attention will be given to the newly affected areas. As of the middle of February 2014 giant pumps imported from the Netherlands were in place but it was not at all clear when the land would return to a fit state for adequate action to be taken. The Somerset Levels may have been replaced by the Somerset Lakes for some weeks or months yet