Flooded Levels 'a disaster area'
Two decades of under-investment in flood defence work has turned the Somerset Levels into a "disaster area", it has been claimed.
Jean Venables, chief executive of the Association of Drainage Authorities, said it was "very, very urgent" that rivers in the area are dredged to prevent more damage to homes, livelihoods and wildlife.
Furious residents are demanding action after being left facing what they describe as "Third World" conditions - with "overflowing" septic tanks and water in their homes as a result of the recent heavy rain.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson promised a new plan to deal with flooding in the region within six weeks after facing their anger on a visit yesterday.
It would "almost certainly" involve a project to clear the Parrett and Tone rivers, he said, acknowledging national guidelines on dredging were not appropriate for the Levels, around 100 square miles of which are below sea level.
The Environment Agency has come under fire from MPs and local councils but insists that increased dredging of the rivers would not have prevented the recent flooding and was "often not the best long-term or economic solution".
The agency - which faces severe spending cuts and job losses - says that instead it is carrying out the "biggest pumping operation ever undertaken in the county".
But with 10 flood warnings still in place in the South West, which mean flooding is expected and immediate action is required, Ms Venables joined local calls for action.
"It's a disaster area down there and it could have been avoided if we had actually kept up with maintenance on the rivers," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"We've got a 20-year backlog of inactivity down there and it is actually very, very urgent that those rivers are dredged.
"We've got to invest in these areas. At the moment, the way in which the models work to prioritise the money for investment, it doesn't go to these areas and it hasn't done for the last 20 years.
"So we have really got to think very carefully about how we are going to play catch-up."
Properly-maintained flood plains would " drain away within a matter of days and then be ready for the next flood, she said, warning that the extreme deluges were in line with climate-change projections.
"We shouldn't need to have to pump. It should work naturally and efficiently as a drainage area. What we haven't got at the moment is 50% of the capacity of that river to take the flow away from the area.
"Although this is too early yet to say it is climate change, it is very indicative with what we are predicting with the models of climate change and therefore we've got to be thinking about how we are going to manage that in the future in these areas and we've got to manage it better than we are at the moment."
She said it was not just a disaster for local people and businesses but also wildlife and the environment.
"A lot of investment that has taken place over the last few years down there developing the SSSIs (sites of special scientific interest) has just been destroyed."
Agency teams continue to operate up to 62 pumps, 24 hours a day, to drain an estimated 1.5 million tonnes of water (equivalent to 600 Olympic-sized swimming pools) off an area of the Levels spanning 25 square miles.
Environment Agency chairman Lord Chris Smith acknowledged that the Levels had suffered a "terrible impact" from the recent floods but insisted dredging was not a significant factor.
"It would not have solved the problems that we are facing at the moment," he told Today.
The Levels were a "unique landscape... which requires unique answers", he said.
Welcoming Mr Paterson's call for all parties to join forces to find a solution to the latest situation, he said: "Dredging would probably make a small difference. It is not the comprehensive answer that some people have been claiming it is.
"We began back in October/November last year to dredge some of the particular choke points on the River Tone and the River Parrett because it can, I believe, make a contribution to solving some of these problems.
"It is not a wholesale solution and we need to look at a whole range of other things as well."
It was "quite possible that dredging will be part of the solution", he said, "but, I must emphasise, only part."
Lord Smith - a former Labour Cabinet minister - said that funding cuts would not be allowed to impact on the Agency's emergency response.
Around 1,700 of the Agency's 11,400 workers are set to be axed, with c hief executive Paul Leinster warning they will include frontline jobs and will affect flood-related work such as mapping.
"What he has said very clearly is that our response to flooding emergencies must be protected and will be protected," Lord Smith said - adding that it was a "red line" in the efforts to find ways to cut costs.
The Agency would "do whatever we possibly can within the limited resources available to ensure that agricultural land is protected", he said, though it was right that it was under a legal duty to prioritise human life and property.
In a swipe at critics of the response to the present emergency, he said staff had been "working their socks off night and day right the way through Christmas and New Year" - including protecting 3,500 properties in Somerset.