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Originally published Monday, February 3, 2014 at 9:08 PM

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Flooded U.K. villages ignite climate debate

As hoses pump floodwaters from fields day and night, one corner of southwest England is at the center of a debate about the effects of climate change and the cost of preserving an agricultural landscape created centuries ago.

The Associated Press

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THORNEY, England — As children climb into boats to get to school and scores of hoses pump floodwaters from fields day and night, one corner of southwest England is trying to reclaim its land. Other Britons watch and wonder: How much can you fight the sea?

Here on the Somerset Levels — a marshy, low-lying region dotted with farmland and villages and crisscrossed by rivers — thousands of acres have been flooded for weeks.

Some villages have been cut off for a month, leaving residents frustrated and angry over being forced to make long detours or take boats to school, work or supermarkets.

Some blame government budget cuts and inept environmental bureaucracy. Others point to climate change. Some wonder if flood defenses for major cities like nearby Bristol or London will take precedence over protecting their hamlets.

Kris Davies, 28, dragged sodden carpet from his cottage in the village of Thorney. He, his wife and two daughters have just returned after a month staying with family in a nearby town.

He said when the area flooded less severely last winter “we were told it was a one-in-100-year occurrence.”

“The following year it happens again — only worse!” he said.

The disaster has put the region at the center of a debate about the effects of climate change and the cost of preserving an agricultural landscape created over the centuries since medieval monks began draining the wetlands around nearby Glastonbury Abbey.

Meteorologists say Britain’s future will involve more extreme weather.

Rainstorms have battered Britain since December, and this January was the wettest in more than a century in southern England.

The region was due to be hit by more rain and gale-force winds starting Monday.

Floods have already inundated an area covering some 25 square miles. The River Parrett and other waterways have burst their banks and fields that normally sustain crops, dairy herds and beef cattle are under several feet of water.

No one in Somerset thinks floods can be avoided. Much of this land is below sea level, and it’s as marshy and porous as a sponge.

But many locals blame this year’s devastation on the national Environment Agency’s decision, in the 1990s, to abandon a policy of routinely dredging local rivers, which are now clogged with silt and running at between a third and two-thirds of capacity.

They say this disaster has been building for years.

“A really carefully constructed landscape, which works quite well, which has worked for 800 years, has suddenly been left untended,” said Andrew Lee, founder of a “Stop the Floods” advocacy group.

Some say spending cuts by Britain’s Conservative-led government have made things worse. The environment department has seen its budget reduced by 500 million pounds ($820 million) since 2010.

The government also argues that dredging alone is not the solution. It speeds up rivers and can cause flooding downstream and it disturbs the habitats of fish, otters and water voles, an endangered rodent.

Somerset’s flooded landscape has lasted long enough to become a tourist attraction. People clamber up the muddy hill known as Burrow Mump to look out over fields that now resemble an inland sea, with the tops of hedges, gates and trees poking out from the water.

The waters have receded only slightly, despite having 65 pumps running around-the clock to drain almost 400 million gallons of water a day from the land.

Prime Minister David Cameron, stung by the uproar, has promised to resume dredging.

Some environmentalists and scientists say in the long run, as ocean levels rise, it’s a doomed effort. They talks about “a managed retreat” — abandoning some farmland and letting marsh and sea reclaim it.

“Retreat is the only sensible policy,” Colin Thorne, a flood expert at Nottingham University told the Sunday Telegraph.

“If we fight nature, we will lose in the end.”

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