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Protecting Somerset from flooding

The impact of the sea
By Rebecca Cafe
BBC Somerset

Wave crashing against Weston's sea wall
The sea defence at Weston-super-Mare is having a 29m upgrade

North Somerset is the second area in the country most at risk from flooding.

A report by the Environment Agency said 20,415 properties were at risk . So what's being done to protect the area?

North Somerset has two main sea defence systems, one at Weston-super-Mare's sea front and another one at Congresbury Yeo.

Weston seafront defences are currently undergoing a £29m upgrade while urgent repair works are being carried out in Congresbury.

When first built, the banks at Congresbury Yeo were set to withstand a one in 200 year flood (meaning a pretty extreme, raw piece of weather).

In recent times, the banks have eroded quickly due to wind and rain so that they could only withstand a 'one in ten year' category flood according to a leaked official Environment Agency report to John Penrose MP.

The building of a full flood defence scheme for the Congresbury Yeo tidal banks has been approved as part of the Severn Estuary strategy and is expected to start at the end of 2010, however urgent repair works have recently been completed.

This involved repairing the existing banks and installing news ones just behind so that if they were breached, the damage would be confined to a small area.

Graham Quarrier who oversaw the project said they have repaired the worst of the damage.

The work had to be carried out as if there was a one in 200 year flood, then the damage it could cause would "potentially be catastrophic".

According to Mr Penrose, it could potentially affect thousands of homes, businesses and livestock from the southern end of Clevedon right down to the edge of Worle because the area is flat.

Flood map of North Somerset

Mr Quarrier said they were working on plans so that the defences there would be of the 'one in 200 years' category. Currently, the defence could withstand a one in 20 category before the water comes over but the water would not get into properties - that would require the one in 200 category flood to occur.

But questions have been raised if this is going far enough. As plans for a Severn Barrage or tidal lagoon are being considered by the government as a way of harnessing the Severn Estuary's power, concerns have been raised that plans to properly overhaul the area's flood defences have been put on hold until a decision is reached.

Richard Angwin, BBC West weatherman
Although rare, storm surges through the Bristol Channel have potentially devastating consequences.

An area of (secondary) low pressure can build the water levels through the Channel and the accompanying southwesterly winds, should they coincide with spring tides, can pound our coastline like no other.

As climate change increases the likelihood of higher sea levels and increased storm activity, today's 'one in ten years' storm protection could, in the very near future, make habitation of some of our coastal areas simply unviable.

Even the adoption of a much more substantial 'one in 200 years' coastal protection strategy cannot entirely rule out the possibility of a damaging storm surge, it does, at least, bring the risk down to acceptable levels.

"It would be a huge mistake if that's what they do as a decision on the barrage is potentially a couple of years away and even if it's made tomorrow, the barrage itself wouldn't be finished until sometime after 2020 / 2022 so that's an awfully long time to wait when you are potentially involved with a flood risk and in my mind that's too long for local families and businesses to be at risk," said Mr Penrose.

"This is a risk we need to understand and it's one we need to take a good deal more seriously and it's one which all the climate change people are telling us is going to get worse in the future rather than better so if we act and do a little bit now, it saves us having to do an awful lot more later.

"At the end of the day, doing a small repair to flood defences, even if it costs several million pounds, is a heck of a lot cheaper than allowing them to fail and having to clean up afterwards."

Mr Quarrier said the agency was not waiting and was planning its own strategy.

"We have to look 100 years ahead. We are mindful that we cannot rely on that so we are doing our own thing at the moment."

He added that the estuary as a whole was so flat that there only needs to be one hole in the 3km flood defence which would have an impact.

"We are trying to increase the standard of defences all the way around so that we don't end up with a week spot."

'Right balance'

Planning the area's flood defences is an on-going process. The Environment Agency is looking to the next six to seven years at the defences around the River Parrett.

Planners must also strike a balance between protecting against floods and altering the coastline.

The Steart Peninsula in west Somerset, is an area which is difficult to maintain as there is a nature reserve there so "it's hard getting the right balance".

The Environment Agency has also completely a "major upgrade" of the the defences in Porlock, a picturesque village which is surrounded on three sides by moorland and was at risk of flash flooding as rainfall runs off the land quickly and into Hawkcombe Stream, which runs right through the village.

Flood defences were built there in the 1960s after heavy rain caused several properties and a large section of Parsons Street were washed away.

"We've worked hard to reduce the risk of flooding in Porlock but you can never completely prevent it," said Chris Smith, project manager at the Environment Agency.

The agency is now encouraging people to sign up to receive flood warnings so that are aware they could be at risk of flooding.

To register for this free service call Floodline on 0845 988 1188.

Flood protection 'needs doubling'
19 Jun 09 |  Science & Environment
'One in six homes' risking floods
19 Jun 09 |  Today
Plan to upgrade town sea defences
20 Jun 06 |  Somerset
Thousands at risk from flooding
13 Sep 06 |  Bristol



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