The Flooding In Yorkshire

In the years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve written about flooding several times. I think it’s a really important issue – and not just because I’m sat here in Somerset. The floods – this time the flooding in Yorkshire – we are seeing are important not just because of the misery and loss they bring. They’re also important because of what they signify and how we react to that.

Just to back up a bit. I’m coming at this from the increasingly consensual position that the flooding we are now experiencing in the UK has been a consequence of several factors, including – at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious – a lot of rain. We are experiencing more extreme weather events and, consequently, more related disasters. These are among the most obvious symptoms of climate change.

It’s F***ing Raining

It’s interesting that some people find this really hard to take, and that (at least most of) the naysayers seem to be of a particular political hue. In Australia, deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack called environmentalists “inner-city raving lunatics” for suggesting there was a link between climate change and the wildfires ravaging New South Wales and Queensland. Donald Trump blamed the Californian governor, a Democrat, for the terrible forest fires there saying he had done a “terrible job of forest management”. He took to Twitter: “Every year, as the fire’s (sic) rage & California burns, it is the same thing – and then he comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more. Get your act together Governor,”

For too long the root cause of increasing extreme weather events has been “opinion” – like the anti-vaxxing scandal. Our news outlets have pandered to this. They would do well to remember:

If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the f***ing window and find out which is true.

Attributed to Will McAvoy, Newsroom

Lorraine Chase Did It

Some people continue to deny that the weather has changed at all. Some say it’s the EU’s fault. Others that “climate hoaxers” are seeding clouds over Luton Airport to cause flooding in Yorkshire. Cunning. Conspiracy theories and denial will ebb away as more and more people are impacted, you would think. Try telling the inhabitants of Abaco Bay that the hurricane that hit Barbados this year was just another hurricane.

The last to change their minds on this will be those who see this as some kind of issue pushed by a political opponent with an agenda. It. Is. Not.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Boris Johnson mopping up floodwater. Sort of.

What IS a political issue, of course, is the way we respond. As I have said before, our system of government is badly equipped to quickly produce the kind of long term and expensive answers that environmental problems demand. They are often complicated and nuanced. Many are unpopular – no-one wants to be told they will have to permanently abandon their house or farm. Solutions require politicians to cross tribal boundaries and give solid financial commitments. Obviously going to happen.

In the short term, more money might find its way to flood prevention – although the auguries aren’t good. Despite environmental concerns beginning to poll, the Environment Agency is now so under-funded it can’t help. Since 2013 the EA has lost nearly 20% of its staff. Houses continue to be built on flood plains willy nilly. Our built environment continues to include too many impermeable hard surfaces and not enough SuDS.

Moreover, there are anti-science forces at work here too, when it comes to methods of flood prevention. On news reports I hear over and over again that if rivers and ditches were properly dredged – “like they used to be” – then the problem would go away. Dredging simply isn’t the answer. It might help in some areas, but not if you get a month’s rainfall in 24 hours – and then more rain. Not if water pours off denuded hillsides. Not if the area you’re trying to protect – like the Somerset Levels – is 650 square kilometres with only around a 4m drop to sea level (currently!); the water has nowhere to go. Rivers aren’t downpipes in an efficient artificial drainage system. If you do dredge or build physical flood defences – at vast environmental and economic cost – you will just shunt the problem somewhere else. The flooding at Fishlake (a village in the Great Humberhead Levels – which used to be largely peat bog) was partly the consequence of the new flood defences at Sheffield, for example.

Hydrologists are big on other stuff. Slowing the flow of water from catchment areas. Managing those areas to absorb more rainfall and reduce runoff. Accepting and identifying where rivers will flood when they want to.*

It’s these evidence based solutions we need to get a move on with. We need to take this seriously (perhaps when London floods we will) and understand that what were 200 year weather events are the new normal. Quite apart from the human misery and social disintegration it brings, flooding also has a huge economic cost.

We need our politicians to stop bickering for a moment and take the lead on this. They need to dramatically increase funding for the EA and take some decisions which will be unpopular and expensive in the short term. We need to understand the landscape and change and adapt to it. There are some encouraging initiatives going on, but nothing of the kind of urgency and scale required. In the bigger picture, it might also be a start to reconstitute the Department For Climate Change.

*This is another example of how we have become removed from the natural landscape, by the way. We have forgotten this kind of stuff.

New Year Newsletter

Happy New Year!
Thank you so much for your support in 2015, which has enabled us to donate £20,000 to small UK Conservation Charities.

2016 has started as wet and soggy as December, which broke all sorts of records for warmth and rainfall in the UK. Whatever the cause, weather patterns are changing and folk are having to adapt.
We are trying to plant hedges at a number of sites at the moment which are completely under water and likely to stay that way until April. We’ll probably have to use chilled stock to plant in spring, and hope we don’t have three months as dry as the winter has been wet. We’ve scarcely had a frost here this winter, so various seeds which need the cold to provoke germination are going to no show. Spring flowers are beginning to make unexpected appearances and the grass is still growing in our meadow, which needs more active management.
Perhaps some of these changes might help people notice their environment and particularly plants a little more. I often feel they view them as incidental background to “nature” on TV – i.e. cute mammals and birds. I hope too that our understanding of plants’ role in the landscape will come into sharper focus as we become more aware of land use in our search for more effective flood prevention.
When our native flora does register on our collective consciousness at the moment it’s generally because of its relationship with pollinators like bees (in the news again because of a rather gloomy study about neonicotinoids from our friends at Sussex University). I’m regularly asked for seed mixes for bees, even different types of bees, which we can happily supply but which seem to me to miss a trick. A typical wildflower meadow mix, for example, is brilliant for all sorts of invertebrates, but not optimal for honeybees. A brilliant honeybee mix is much less helpful for other species. Diversity, as ever, is the key, and something we can help you create.

Nick Mann

Somerset Flooding (Again)

Flooding The flooding in the Somerset Levels is a serious issue which won’t go away. I was writing about it this time last year. Even if you don’t believe in global warming, there’s not much denying the weather is changing. We are getting more rain here and it’s falling quicker. The rainfall in December and January has been unprecedented. This is not just one village that’s under water, and it’s not just under water for a few days. There are A roads in the Levels which were under water for months in 2013. Farmland is becoming permanently unusable. Sticking some pumps in or ringing the Marines isn’t going to help. Nor is Owen Paterson. What is needed is the formulation and delivery of a long term strategic plan, not knee jerk populism.

The local MP blames the floods on not dredging the Parrett and the Tone. The Environment Agency blames government cutbacks and conservationists. George Monbiot blames the hill farmers. Meanwhile, in completely unconnected news, Owen Paterson announces a 41% cut in the budget for domestic initiatives to deal with climate change, with no apparent irony.

Somerset flooding didn’t used to be the stuff of headlines – it’s why the county is called Somerset. It’s why Alfred the Great hung out here and why archaeologists get excited about Bronze Age finds like the Sweet Track. Glastonbury Tor used to be an island in a sea of salt water for much of the year. “Used to be”. Most of the Levels were subject to extensive drainage and dredging schemes and stopped flooding many years ago, to the extent that Environment Agency described last year’s floods as a “once in a 100 year event”. It clearly wasn’t. In any case, they can’t afford to say anything different.*

Changing weather patterns mean we have a simple choice to make; do we want to keep the Levels inhabited or not? Either way, we need to have a long term plan and the money to action it, and now. Start thinking about managing areas for wildlife and paying compensation to their previous owners, and/or using more natural and cost-effective flood prevention measures like catchment restoration.

There are plenty of other environmental issues which also need decisive, well informed action before they cost us as much as RBS. Land use, large infrastructure projects (Heathrow, HS2), renewable power, the marine environment, freshwater quality, high intensity farming, etc. etc. Our political elite – of all parties – seems completely ill-equipped to deal with these difficult but vitally important issues. Successive administrations procrastinate, cave in to populist opinion or aggressive commercial lobbying, or just reverse earlier policy initiatives.

While everyone continues to dither, thank goodness we live half way up a hill at the other end of the county.

*Middlezoy is not Holland Park. There’s no way that the good people of W8 would have been sloshing about in their waders for 6 months. It’s all very well saying that if you live on a flood plain you’ve got it coming to you; does that apply to anyone living in the Thames basin behind the flood barrier? As things stand The Environment Agency – and we as a country – just don’t have the resources to be anything other than be hugely selective about who or what they save from extreme weather. This is wildly divisive and will be more and more so.