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Protecting our precious chalk streams

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Water


Between May 2018 and May 2019 parts of the South East of England received 30% less rain than normal.

The last three winters have been exceptionally dry and we have an on-going environmental drought across the region.

There is no doubt that this has been caused by the climate emergency. There is also no doubt that it is having a devastating effect on our chalk streams.

English chalk streams are one of the most precious and beautiful things in the natural world. They are known for their clear waters, rich wildlife and for providing a beautiful place for people to enjoy.

Chalk streams flow from chalk aquifers, stores of underground water that are replenished when it rains. Some groundwater levels in the South East are now at the lowest level ever recorded.

Sections of chalk stream regularly stop flowing during drier periods bur low groundwater levels are causing longer stretches than normal to dry up.

Chalk streams and chalk aquifers provide essential drinking water for people across the South East. Some water companies such as Cambridge Water are 100% dependent on this source of water. Without it taps would run dry.

Businesses and farms also rely on chalk streams. Without water they would not be able to operate. This would significantly affect the economy, the livelihoods of the people that they employ and the availability of the food we eat.

Balancing the needs of people and the environment is a challenge and it is getting harder. Population growth, particularly in the South East, means that more and more water is required at a time when climate change is reducing the amount of water that is available.

We are working flat out to limit the damage the dry weather is having and to ensure that water supplies are sustainable for the future. This includes taking immediate action to restrict the amount of water taken, developing long-term plans to reduce our reliance on chalk streams, working with partners on projects to improve water quality and stepping in to limit damage to wildlife and the environment when river levels are too low.

Whilst we have to take water from the environment to live, a process we call abstraction, we have got to make sure that abstraction is sustainable.We regulate water abstraction through our licensing system. By reviewing licences and reducing the amount of water people can take we have returned 16 billion litres of water back to chalk aquifers and streams since 2008 and removed the risk of another 14.9 billion litres being taken. This is equivalent to the average annual domestic water use of approximately 300,000 people – similar to the population of Nottingham.

We are also introducing new licences for thousands of people and organisations that have previously been exempt to further regulate the amount that is taken.

But abstraction regulation can only go so far. Longer-term solutions are dependent on finding alternative water supplies and reducing demand in the South East. This will mean extensive and costly infrastructure such as new reservoirs and pipes to transfer water from other parts of the country. Detailed plans for the new infrastructure that we need are currently being drawn up.

We are also working with numerous partners on a wide range of innovative projects to improve water quality.

Since 2011, our partnership work on over 60 projects has driven improvements to more than 70 kilometres of chalk streams at a cost of £4.3 million.

Our work in Lincolnshire is a good example. The Lincolnshire Chalk Streams Project has helped to deliver over 29 kilometres of improvements to date and plans are now in place to deliver more over the next five years.

The success of the project was recognised when it won the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty's prestigious Bowland Award.

In Hertfordshire & North London we have been collaborating with Affinity Water to reduce abstraction from pumping stations on seven chalk streams, transforming flows in an area of significant water stress and improving this unique and rare environment to meet Water Framework Directive targets.

We are also providing advice and guidance to farmers to limit pollution from fertilisers and soil run off and are bringing together groups of local partners to make decisions about the best way to improve water quality in local areas.

Our teams are on standby 24/7 to respond to environmental incidents such as fish in distress when river levels get too low. Anyone who sees an incident should report it by calling our incident hotline on 0800 80 70 60 so that we can take appropriate action.

We are doing everything we can within the legal framework and financial constraints that we operate in to increase the amount and quality of water in our chalk streams now and for the future. But much more needs to be done.

Earlier this year, our Chief Executive Sir James Bevan described ‘the jaws of death' - the time when demand for water outstrips supply. To avoid even more devastating droughts in future we need to take concerted action now.

Water companies need to do much more to tackle leakage, planners and developers need to ensure that all new developments are water efficient and regulators as well as government need to work together to ensure that robust restrictions are in place before people can abstract water from the environment.

Businesses and farmers across the country, especially in the South East, need to reduce the amount of water they use and must stop pollution from entering our waters.

Individuals also need to play their part. People in England use a staggering 140 litres of water a day. In Denmark they use just 80 litres. There is no justification for the difference. Every drop of water that is wasted is water that could be sustaining our rivers, streams and lakes.

We are taking action to encourage water companies to promote the importance of saving water to their customers and have recently joined forces with over 40 partners to launch the Love Water campaign. This is aimed at encouraging people to use less water and to look after the water we have. We need the campaign to grow so that everyone knows that water is precious - so that everyone take action to protect it.

By using less and looking after what we have, we will be able to prevent even more devastating droughts in future and ensure that we have clean and plentiful water for generations to come. But we will only achieve this if everyone takes action now.

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  1. Comment by Russell Tilling posted on

    Excellent article thank you.

  2. Comment by r.a.curtis posted on

    River mimram which is now dry codicote quarry was taking water from the chalk streams now they are not working quarry is now flooded it should of been plugged so the chalk streams can work instead of flooding the quarry hence that's half the problem river mimram dry

  3. Comment by William Hughes-Games posted on

    Hi Pete
    Fortunately, in some places in the UK, the beaver has been re-introduced. this is one of the best measures you can take against both droughts and floods.
    As for water quality and the effects farmers have on it, there is a great book by David R Montgomery called "Growing a Revolution". Here is a brief summary but I would highly recommend the original. It is much better. While you are at it, get his previous book, "Dirt" in which he describes the fate of societies that treated their soil like dirt.

  4. Comment by Tony Sperring posted on

    You need to show strong leadership regarding our precious chalk streams. A Policy guide that would be enforced would be a start. My local water company Affinity Water provides me endless technical "waffle" and jargon when I raised the issue of the "dry" chalk stream the latest is listed below:

    Subject: RE: REF:180629/CAMB01 - River WYE Location: High Wycombe Ordinance Survey Reference 86572 95325

    The Asset Specialist – Water Resources for Affinity Water Mr Illias Krapanos is powerless in resolving the situation and is unable to offer any solutions to this environmental disaster

    My regular correspondence is a waste of time.

    Solution to improve the Chalk Stream on the Wye river

    1. Better leadership by the regulators and water companies, provide a legal policy that is enforced
    2. Water saving devises water meters
    3. Farmers to create reservoirs on their land ( EU subsidies’ are available)
    4. Government ( environment agency) to take the issue seriously
    5. stop leakages
    6. increase water charges
    7. Ensure developers pay for the investment into securing sustainable fresh water supplies for new builds



  5. Comment by Shirley Myatt posted on

    It was good to hear this week that charging more tax for those who fly the most (and therefore do the most harm to the environment) is now being debated. The same should be the case with water usage.This would encourage people to think about their own usage. People with pools and hot tubs or who want ultra green lawns should pay a lot more, and this additional income could help pay to fix leaks too.

  6. Comment by Gordon Stanley posted on

    Protecting Chalk streams hear in Lincolnshire is no mean feat, when local councils, Environment Agency and other agencies who state they are working to save Chalk streams, have shown very little interest that sewage has and is entering a small chalk stream, along the edge of one of my fields for over 20 years.
    With no help from any of the above agencies over a good number of years, i have had to make contact with one of the offenders, who has now installed a filtration plant themselves, with no building regulation approval, which according to the General binding rules, should be in place before work takes place. this plant is sited 6 meters too near the chalk stream according to the rules, what is the point of having regulations if people do not abide with them, when installing these plants themselves, the old septic tank is still in place, full of sewage and still piped into the stream. such a shame people are prepared to act in this manner in an ANOB in the Lincolnshire Wolds.

  7. Comment by Mrs Dawn Holmes posted on

    The local council granted permission to a local farmer to have a bio digester producing gas, He sold it to a power company and has extended it and extended it with trucks bringing in Maize from all over the county. The lagoons are in the wrong place - on high land, and when the floods come - as they will, this run off will go straight into the Waveney in Bressingham. He has now applied for retrospective planning permission and the local council were going to put it through 'on the nod' . This man is notorious for bad management and revenge on the community who try and stop his anti social antics. He is already piling up waste on his neighbours border, right next to his house since they have complained to the council. He has built the digesters and lagoons such that they blight another neighbour's business on HIGH land instead of low land, so when these flood, as they will since he's notoriously bad at any type of management (has been prosecuted for this many times in the past) you can see his track record. He wants the MONEY but will not do the work. His original plans were not stuck to, yet the local official who inspected 'went away happy' OK'd them. There is hell on on the community as roads are being churned up by heavy lorries and houses cracked since the heavy lorries are doing damage to ancient buildings, but what's worse is that the river is at serious risk of pollution. This is at the start of the Waveny and the pollution will be ongoing for years until someone, who is not in this farmer's pocket, actually looks at it seriously. DEAL FARM Bressingham. South Norfolk Council. Oh, and since when was producing Methane - to be mixed with Propane and then put into the grid GREEN. A french energy company is raking it in from this plant - not a British one, yet we are the people who will suffer terrible ecological damage is NOTHING is done. How the council can put through retrospective planning permission 'on the nod' for something as grossly incompetent and dangerous as this I do not know. Do the villagers have to take direct action to protect the environment? This is a RARE CHALK STREAM we are talking about.


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