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Relief as river dredging under way
Residents say they are "relieved and encouraged" by the start of dredging on the flood-hit Somerset Levels and Moors this morning.
A team of workers and equipment - including one excavator from the Netherlands - began dredging a 200-yard stretch of river at 8am.
The work marks the beginning of a seven-month period in which up to 400,000 tonnes of silt will be removed from the River Tone and River Parrett.
Contractors will work six days a week at eight sites across Somerset to dredge a five-mile stretch - with material removed used as fertiliser on local fields or for flood bank repairs.
Nearly 30,000 acres of land were left submerged during relentless winter storms and rain over the past three months, devastating homes, businesses and farms.
Flood water levels have since receded to allow roads to reopen, residents to return home and, crucially, dredging to begin.
Life is "a long way off" returning to normal for local residents, some of whom gathered at Burrowbridge to watch the work start.
Third-generation farmer Geoff Miller, 66, has returned just two of the 88 cows that used to graze on his land at Millwood Farm, with many fields still under water.
"I'm relieved to see it," Mr Miller said. "My great aunt, who is in her 90s, said they used to dredge here by hand.
"They thought it was essential to do it. It is disappointing that we haven't had it for the last 15 years or so. Every tide brings in a little bit of silt. It builds up and builds up.
"We have been here for years, we know why the rivers were dredged but the authorities knew better than us. It has now bitten them on the backsides.
"I am very happy today, we have waited 15 years for this to happen. It looks very encouraging."
Mr Miller said he had sold 10 cows and eight calves, and was still driving out to visit the rest of his herd, split over two farms on dryer land.
"Life is far from being back to normal," he added.
Jim Winkworth, of Flooding on the Levels Actions Group (Flag), also welcomed the dredging but said it was only part of the solution.
The pub landlord said pumping stations, some up to 80 years old, desperately needed updating and more effective pumping equipment should be installed.
Mr Winkworth said: " I'm delighted to see that they have made a start. We are watching them very closely to make sure they do a proper job. We don't want the rivers dredged, then in 12 months time be in a similar situation.
"Hopefully the job will be done properly and we applaud it."
Residents are now focused on clearing up devastation left after the floods, he added.
"There's been a lot of homes ruined," he said. "If you look at Moorland for instance, it makes you cry every time you go through there. It's people's lives, people's homes."
The Environment Agency denied claims that dredging the rivers earlier would have prevented flooding in properties on the Somerset Moors and Levels.
Ian Withers, environment manager at the Environment Agency, said: " The event we've had this winter has been the most severe in history.
"We've had more rainfall than we've ever had in this part of the country.
"Dredging would not have prevented the properties from being flooded but it may well now reduce the likelihood of flooding, and it will almost certainly reduce the severity."
Mr Withers said work beyond the initial stretch of 200 yards would begin in a month or so, when flooded fields drained well enough to benefit from the removed material.
"Over the next seven months we will be making significant progress," he said.
Dredging forms part of the Somerset Levels and Moors Flood Action Plan, a £100 million 20-year plan to protect Somerset from future flooding.
The plan also proposes a new tidal barrier at Bridgwater and raising the levels of key roads to prevent communities such as Muchelney from being cut off again.
Across the country, 6,500 homes and businesses were flooded in the crisis - with flood schemes protecting more than 1.4 million properties and nearly 1,000 square miles of farmland.
Craig Woolhouse, head of flood incident management at the Environment Agency, said work was being carried out across the country to repair damaged flood defences.
"There has been a whole range of repairs under way," Mr Woolhouse said.
"Overall, there is probably going to be £270 million spent of the response to the flooding and then the repairs to flood defences as a result of these winter storms and the flooding."
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said: "People in Somerset were devastated over the floods this winter.
"We are working hard to help people rebuild their lives and I'm pleased that the dredging of the rivers Parrett and Tone has started today.
"It will help ensure Somerset is better protected from the risk of flooding in the future."