Floods likely to go on until spring

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Britain faces continued flooding until spring even if winter brings only average levels of rain, the Environment Agency warned yesterday.

Britain faces continued flooding until spring even if winter brings only average levels of rain, the Environment Agency warned yesterday.

The ground over much of southern England has been so saturated after the deluges of the past fortnight that there is simply nowhere for further excess water to go. Many areas, such as the North and South Downs, which usually act as giant "sponges" for excessive rainfall, are brimming.

The warning came as Britain, and particularly the south, braced for more wet weather. Forecasters are predicting up to 40mm (1 1/2in) of rain over the weekend and places such as Uckfield, in East Sussex, which have already flooded twice, could be inundated yet again

Ray Kemp, a spokesman for the agency, said: "Unless we have an exceptionally dry winter, every time there is rain of any considerable quantity, people can expect flooding until growing vegetation in the spring soaks the water up. That could mean repeat flooding every time we even get just the average winter rainfall, because we cannot get rid of that water."

Paradoxically, only relatively little rain could cause far more widespread flooding of homes, with up to 160,000 households at risk this winter in the south alone, says the agency. Floods also threaten Brighton town centre because the huge storm tunnel that runs beneath the Sussex resort is seven-eighths full.

Villages and towns are already suffering from waterlogged land. Mr Kemp said: "On the West Sussex coast on Friday we had 5mm of rain. Normally, that is nothing but this morning the roads were already flooded. There is nowhere for it to go. In some cases, spring water from the ground, not rivers, is bursting through flooring."

The full extent of the damage farmers are suffering is becoming clear. In the Yorkshire and Humberside region, 1,500 out of 1,700 farmers have problems with potato crops. A shortage of British potatoes is forecast, leading to increased imports and high prices.

"Many potatoes are rotting," said a spokesman for the National Farmers' Union. "Most farmers would expect to have harvested their potatoes by now but up to 50 per cent are still in the ground. Even the fields that aren't under water are so wet you can't get machinery on them. The worry is that most fields won't dry out until spring. A wet and expensive harvest will be the final straw for some farmers."

Richard Lapage, an assistant farm manager in Goole, said: "We are not going to be able to get back on the land until spring. If we push it, we damage soil structure, and fields take years to get back again."

There was one piece of good news. A bride-to-be, Anita Hudson, was stranded in the flooded village of Bubwith Bridge, near Selby, North Yorkshire but the Army waded to the rescue, ferrying her, and her wedding dress, through 5ft of water from her home to her wedding car. They got her to the register office in York on time.