This post is by Charles Rangeley-Wilson, author, conservationist and chair of the CaBA Chalk Stream Restoration Group.
In the post-war years, the immense bodies of filtered rainwater held within the chalk aquifers must have seemed like manna from heaven, providing easy, high quality water to a growing population and the south east’s burgeoning industry and agriculture. A very few far sighted commentators predicted the environmental damage that would result from over use of this resource, but not enough to turn the tide. Consequently, abstraction of chalk aquifers grew and grew towards a late 1980s peak when, in some catchments in drier years, we were taking more water out of the valleys than fell from the sky into them. Even when rainfall was good, unsustainable volumes of water were taken and our precious chalk streams dried up.
Nature is paying the price for a failure to act
In the early 1990s, sixteen chalk streams were identified as suffering from acute over abstraction. Investigations and programmes of work were begun to address the issue. Now, thirty one years later, only five of those streams enjoy flows deemed sufficient to support good ecological status. We have failed to adequately address the problem and our wildlife and environment are still paying the price.
There have been some improvements. Various schemes have sought to identify and amend the most damaging and unsustainable licences, placing constraints on how much water can be taken from the environment, or when it can be taken, to minimise harm. But this is never straightforward. Any licences causing ‘serious damage’ can be revoked, but the term is ill-defined, and where principles do exist, they set the bar extremely high, for example, ‘permanent loss of native species or habitat’. And who wants that before we act?
Another barrier is the fact that abstractors have been entitled to compensation when their licences are changed or revoked. Quite the opposite of the polluter pays principle.
With our rivers still failing, in 2014 the Water Act removed the requirement to pay compensation for water company licence changes, in a precedent setting move that has now seen a number of water industry licences amended.
Companies’ Water Resources Management Plans then afford customers the opportunity to have their say on which schemes should be taken forward to make up the shortfall. And, notably, customers often support schemes that deliver wider environmental benefits, rather than those which deliver their water supplies most cheaply. It seems customers understand that we cannot lean so hard on the environment.
These moves have resulted in positive changes. The Environment Agency’s Restoring Sustainable Abstraction programme has delivered alterations to 124 abstraction licences on chalk streams, returning 105 megalitres per day of water to the environment (37 billion litres per annum). Abstraction has been reduced on once heavily abstracted rivers like the Piddle, Og and Pang. But, despite this progress, there are still 86 chalk streams – mostly around London – where flow ‘does not support good ecological status’.
People expect the environment to be better protected
This crisis has proved so insoluble because there is immense pressure on public water supply in a heavily populated and dry part of the country, where only limited water sources are available and finding other sources is expensive.
The National Framework for Water Resources offers the best chance we have yet had to renaturalise chalk stream flows by looking for water resource options which are not based simply on cost. It will see companies factoring in environmental protection and working together to identify solutions that are resilient to future pressures including climate change, including water transfers between regions, storage reservoirs, water reuse schemes and desalination. Chalk streams are a priority in this process.
But why should we, as water company customers, be solely responsible for achieving this environmental sustainability? As bill payers, we will fund investment in these schemes, but we need to be confident that others are also playing their part.
Whilst water company abstractions account for the lion’s share of water use, other abstractions can be significant and currently they cannot be changed to protect the environment without the need to pay compensation to the licence holder.
This is surely an anachronism. Times have changed and the environment deserves proper protection. Powers in the Environment Bill will allow the Environment Agency to amend these outdated licences when they are causing environmental damage. This will bring the holders of historic licences into line; both with the rest of their sector, and with the expectations of society.
It will also help to ensure that all the other effort and investment expended on improving the environment is not undermined by failing to address this fundamental problem.
Clause 82 is both extremely welcome, and long overdue.
The powers however will apply only from 2028. The intention is that the intervening period will be used to identify damaging abstractions and give acceptable notice to licence holders that their businesses will need to evolve. There is a risk, of course, that come 2028 we will find ourselves faced with numerous appeals from licence holders arguing that they need another year, or several, to adapt. Our chalk streams cannot wait.
Lord Cameron’s amendment would bring this notice period down, meaning that the Environment Agency could start to deliver these essential protections sooner. Collaborative and catchment-based solutions would be sought first. But, where agreement cannot be reached, there is no benefit in not having access to these powers whilst our environment continues to decline.
If we are to deliver the kind of green, equitable society that is so often talked about by the government, this is one of the changes we need to see. And sooner, rather than later.