Chalk streams are England’s rainforests and they need help fast

Just over a year ago, representatives from government agencies, water companies, regulators and voluntary sector organisations gathered at a conference hosted by the Chilterns Society to discuss the state of the area’s chalk streams. It followed an intense drought which caused a shocking 63 per cent of it’s chalk stream habitats in the Chilterns to dry up. 

Riddled by issues such as habitat degradation, low flows and pollution from wastewater treatment facilities, agricultural and road runoff, caused by a lethal concoction of climate change, over-abstraction and stream modification, these precious habitats are existentially threatened. 

Recently, representatives met again at the Chalk Stream Summit, this time co-hosted by the Chilterns Society and the Environment Minister Rebecca Pow. The government has woken up to this crisis.

We are losing England’s ‘rainforests’
Chalk streams are English speciality habitats. In fact, England boasts 85 per cent of the world’s total share of chalk streams, which span from Dorset to Yorkshire.

Emerging from springs fed by chalk aquifers, underground reservoirs of freshwater filtered through chalk hills, chalk streams are characteristic for their clean, gravel beds and crystal-clear water. Their physical and chemical characteristics make them incredible biodiversity hotspots capable of supporting a huge diversity of flora and fauna, including the brown trout and Atlantic salmon so dearly beloved by anglers. In fact, chalk streams are so ecologically rich they are often described as England’s rainforests or England’s Great Barrier Reef. The ebb and flow of chalk streams has also been captured in the works of many literary greats, whilst the aquifers provide clean drinking water to millions of Britons every day. In south east England, two thirds of water is supplied from chalk aquifers meaning that this decline has direct human as well as environmental consequences.

There are reasons to be cheerful
Chalk streams are in trouble but, to echo Harvey Bradshaw, executive director of business and strategy at the Environment Agency, there are “reasons to be cheerful”. 

For one, we have an ambitious and personally committed minister at the helm. Attending the summit in person, the main message from Rebecca Pow’s opening address was that all stakeholders –  from government and water companies to civil society – should be working to achieve progress “faster and further” to protect and restore these habitats. 

She described the Environment Agency’s national framework for water resources, published in March, as a “step-change in water resources planning”. Adopting a collaborative approach by coordinating water companies and regional groups, this framework sets out to improve the quality of all our aquatic environments, as well as the long term resilience of water supplies. To achieve these aims, the framework focuses largely on reducing water use and alternatives to unsustainable abstraction, especially in vulnerable chalk stream catchments. 

The government’s ambitions for improving water supply resilience is supported by water companies. Affinity Water, last month pledged to stop all unsustainable abstractions from chalk groundwaters, and have already switched off two water abstraction sites at the top of the Chess Valley.

In a similar vein, both the government and the water industry outlined major commitments to tackling pollution at the summit. Pow, referenced the newly established Storm Overflow Task Force manned jointly by Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat and the Consumer Council for Water, whilst Southern Water said they are committed to reduce pollution by 80 per cent by 2025 and 100 per cent by 2040. 

Restoration needs to speed up
Despite the zeal with which ministers, governmental bodies and water companies renewed their commitments at the summit, serious concerns came up in a panel discussion with environmental groups. 

One panelist, for instance, highlighted that according to a recent Environment Agency consultation report, at the current rate of progress, it will take 200 years to achieve the 25 year environment plan’s goal of returning 75 per cent of water bodies to their natural state. This is clearly an unacceptable timeline considering what is at stake. Several recent articles have also expressed serious concern over the ability of the Environment Agency to act, after plans to change the river monitoring programme and water down the EU’s Water Framework Directive post-Brexit have come to light. 

Another concern is that simply supplying chalk streams with more water will not be enough to revive them, as the integrity and ecological value of chalk streams has been jeopardised by historic modifications. Whilst the Environment Agency has announced a new £880,000 Water Environment Improvement Fund to support local habitat and chalk stream restoration work, the scale of the challenge is much bigger than this. Indeed, after centuries and even millennia of human use, today 75 per cent of England’s chalk streams are heavily modified. 

Important legislation is coming up
An early litmus test of government commitment will be the upcoming Environment Bill, which Rebecca Pow explained would enable the government to achieve pre-existing targets and implement new legally binding ones. The bill gives the Environment Agency a welcome power to act on abstraction licenses causing environmental harm. But the timescale proposed in the bill won’t kick in until 2028, putting threatened habitats and public water supplies at risk for a further eight years.

Another one to watch, with implications for chalk streams, is the Private Members’ Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, which has its second reading in parliament next month. The UK will want to pitch itself as a global leader at the Climate Summit this December and when hosting the UN COP26 climate conference next year. Concerted action to reverse the decline of chalk streams will be a good sign of its intentions. 

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