Did The Environment Agency Intentionally Allow Flooding?

  • Date: 10/02/14
  • Andrew Montford, Bishop Hill

In his interview with the Today programme this morning, Environment Agency chairman Lord Smith was asked about the idea that it was the policy of the Agency to allow the Somerset Levels to flood (audio below; 7:00 mins for key quotes). Smith was asked specifically about a policy document from 2008 which referred to the possibility – so-called option 6 – of allowing parts of the Levels to flood:

Policy Unit 8- Somerset Levels and Moors
Policy option 6 – Take action to increase the frequency of flooding to deliver benefits locally or elsewhere, which may constitute an overall flood risk reduction.
Note: This policy option involves a strategic increase in flooding in allocated areas, but is not intended to affect the risk to individual properties.

Smith was absolutely adamant that the Agency had no such policy:

No, that certainly hasn’t been …certainly since I’ve been chairman of the Environment Agency, which was after that document, which I have to confess I’ve never seen and never taken any notice of.

…that is certainly is not Environment Agency policy as of now, hasn’t been for the last five and half years while I’ve been chairman…

Which is why this second document, from 2012, is such a surprise. This is the North and Mid-Somerset Flood Management Plan, put in place some four years after Chris Smith became chairman and seems to suggest (p.20) that Option 6 was in fact the Agency’s preferred policy for the Levels.

The vision and  preferred policy
Policy Option 6 – we will take action with others to store water or manage runoff in locations that provide overall flood risk reduction or environmental benefits. By adopting this policy and redistributing water some areas will be subject to increased flooding while others will benefit from reduced flooding. The aim is to achieve a net overall benefit. The distribution of floodwater between moors can be determined to some extent by the use of sluices and other structures on the rivers. The distribution of floodwater has  developed to some extent by historical ‘accident’ rather than design. When considering the distribution of  assets across the sub-area it makes sense to direct water to areas which have limited assets at risk.  By redistributing floodwater, primarily from upstream of Langport to the King’s Sedgemoor Drain, the overall damage and disruption from flooding would be reduced. Other redistribution options may also be possible,  although modelling has shown that technically not all options are feasible.

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