SRA Annual Report 2019-20: Strategic Approach to Mitigation
Work on this project began in November 2017 and is continuing. Its three main aims are to:
- reduce costs and risks
- enable flood risk management schemes in the county to go ahead
- secure a wide range of environmental benefits
The project is being led for the SRA by Natural England, which has successfully been involved with more than 40 other similar approaches to mitigation across the country.
Reducing flood risks and protecting the environment
Mitigation means works that must be done – by law – to offset any unavoidably negative effects of projects. In Somerset’s case, there is an extra factor. One of the objectives of Somerset’s 20 Year Flood Action Plan is to make the most of the county’s special characteristics: its biodiversity, its environment, its cultural heritage. The wetlands of the Somerset Levels are one feature of international importance. So it is doubly vital to seek the best possible ways of reducing flood risks and protecting the environment. It is also best, wherever possible, to streamline ways of doing this.
In 2019-20, Natural England has been focusing on assessing the impacts of dredging and Sowy-KSD enhancements on local wetlands.
On the one hand, these activities will result in less water for less time on floodplains. Part of their purpose is to enable pumps to be started earlier so that floodwater can be more quickly removed from moors.
On the other hand, wetlands are supposed to be wet. In particular, winter bird populations need to feed in ‘shallow splash’ conditions.
So, for SRA projects to be legally compliant with habitat regulations, designated sites and wider wetlands (technically known as Functionally Linked Land) must be protected.
‘Shallow splash’ describes wet grassland that attracts and supports wild creatures such as waders.
Designated sites are places given special status and extra legal protection because of their ecological or geological value. Sites can be of local, national or international importance. Nearly 6,400 hectares of the Somerset Levels & Moors are wetlands of international significance.
Functionally Linked Land means areas of land or sea outside the boundaries of designated sites but critical to the success of those sites.
Four actions needed
Natural England’s aim is to get the balance right. It has identified four initial Strategic Mitigation actions that must be funded and implemented over the next two years (2020-22). Briefly, these are:
1) Development of a robust, long-term monitoring programme, to ensure compliance with environmental legislation and the necessary maintenance of designated areas.
2) Review and update of all Water Level Management Plans (WLMPs), to ensure that required conditions are being met without adverse effects on homes and infrastructure. A review of each moor is required, looking at future management options, to see, for example, if it possible to use fewer structures to reduce costs and work more with natural processes.
3) Introduction of Operational Protocols, linked to WLMPs. This involves agreeing upon Environmental Trigger Points and clear procedures after winter and summer floods. The aim is to ensure that wetland conditions remain suitable for wintering and breeding waterfowl without affecting homes and infrastructure and while also sustaining appropriate farming practices.
4) Identification and mapping of areas outside of designated sites, to show areas that are critical to wintering bird populations and areas with potential for mitigation activities. Natural England has started work on this improved environmental mapping. Areas that do not need to be considered as Functionally Linked Land will also be indicated.
Key partners and stakeholders in the development of this approach are Natural England, the Environment Agency, Somerset County Council, Sedgemoor District Council, Somerset Drainage Boards Consortium, National Farmers Union, Country Land and Business Association (CLA), Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group SouthWest, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Somerset Wildlife Trust.
Other longer-term proposals are due to be presented to the SRA Board in 2020-21.