Somerset Levels – A Future Focus for Flood Alleviation Technology?

Written By: European Sales Director, Hydro International

Photo of flooding on Somerset levels (c) Bill Stilling

The suffering and frustration of the residents in the Somerset levels has rightly become a focus of media attention with the wettest January in 250 years testing a community used to flooding almost beyond its limits.

In the meantime, with the recent visit of Prince Charles and of Lord Smith today (7 February), the area has become something of a focus in the floods debate, although many other communities across the country are also struggling to cope.

As David Cameron pledges extra funding to help the UK’s stricken communities with repairs and defences, engineers and flood risk managers might begin to consider what solutions could be suggested to prevent further misery for residents.  High profile cases like the Somerset Levels might also provide an opportunity to bring greater public debate and knowledge about the broad range of flood risk management tools and solutions available.

Of course, there is not one silver bullet to flood alleviation on a catchment level and the answer will lie in a mix of technologies and techniques that deal both with the opportunity to hold back excess surface water runoff  in the upland catchment and provide fluvial defences and at-source SuDS and surface water control in the lowlands.

There has already been some discussion in the media about potential solutions for the Levels.  The most promising solutions are based on a more ‘back to nature’ approach that works with the natural topography and hydrology and reflects the sentiments of the Government’s Making Space for Water initiative.  These could include building natural attenuation features, planting trees and creating temporary flood storage on agricultural land to protect downstream properties.  I also noted that Lord Smith spoke in a recent BBC TV interview about the potential for holding back water in the uplands that could be part of a solution for the Levels.

The Parrett catchment begins in steep uplands.  (Visit the excellent Wave site to understand more of the water and land management of the area).   Glasgow’s White Cart Flood Alleviation Scheme, and the Wigan Flood Alleviation Scheme featured on this website, provide some interesting and potentially useful examples for upstream flood storage when combined with other flood protection measures as part of a holistic catchment management approach.

In these examples, Hydro-Brake® Flow Controls hold back the water in temporary flood areas.  The technology uses the available storage space most effectively.   Alternative solutions using more conventional technology such as orifice plates, gates or weirs would need to flood a much larger area.  Glasgow and Wigan protect urban areas, but the same principle is true for flood control of any size and other similar schemes serving smaller, or more rural catchments have also been in operation for many years, including those at Weedon, Northampton, Devil’s Bridge, Sheffield and Portpatrick, Belfast.

Hydro is proud of the pedigree behind our engineering and has its headquarters in Clevedon, Somerset, not that far away from the Levels.  So I hope my suggestion will be interpreted as genuinely made in the interest of contributing to the full consideration of all potential solutions that may be available to solving the growing problem of flooding across the UK as the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent.

Photo:  Floods on the Somerset levels (Bill Stilling) / CC BY-SA 2.0
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Alex Halford says:

It is great news that people are talking about slowing flows from the upper catchment rather than the drivel of river dredging, which people seem to be hanging their hats on as a resolution to the somerset levels flooding.
The solution as far as I see it comes in the form of agricultural land attenuation. Slowing the flow of runoff crossing farmland is more of a contributing factor towards the Somerset levels flooding than the capacity of the rivers themselves, which become tidal blocked by the River Severn at times of high tide.
What is needed more than SuDS on housing estates is Suds on farmland. I regularly suffer traffic delays in my town in North Somerset due to flows from farmland running off into the public highway flooding the road. The problem with runoff across farmland is the amount of silts which it brings with it which blocks the sewers.
Cut off trenches at the low points of farmland connected to a suitable land drainage system would resolve a lot of the issues we are currently experiencing.
However these are the thoughts of a menial engineer, which probably don’t matter and probably won’t ever get referred to.

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