You Don’t Miss the Water until your Well Runs Dry.

River Chess at Sarratt

At the moment there is widespread flooding in parts of the North of England and, quite rightly, the news channels are reporting this and featuring the poor people who are currently unable to live in their homes as a result.  Once the immediate relief efforts have subsided hopefully the media will focus on the abject failure of the water companies, the Environment Agency and Environment Ministers to manage the water catchments, water supply and waste water in this country – or to meet their regulatory obligations.

The North is flooding, but the South East has been experiencing a drought that is having a catastrophic effect on the natural environment, particularly on Chalk Streams, like the Chess above.

Old Sluice on River Kennet at Axford

So – what is special about chalk streams?

There’s an old saying: ‘you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry’.

For a lot of us in the UK, chalk streams are our water-wells. But they’re much more than that too. They’re part of our landscape and our natural environment – our history, culture, geography and economy as well as our ecology.” WWF-UK The State of England’s Chalk Streams 2015.

River Pool in Lewisham

Chalk streams are one of the rarest ecosystems on the planet. There are about 200 true chalk streams to be found anywhere in the world and most of them are in England.  The rest are in Northern France. In good health, these streams have the clearest and freshest of water; as clear as the purest crystal. Clean gravel beds appear between luxurious beds of emerald green water plants.

These are unique rivers – fragile and beautiful, they host an abundance of wildlife and are the foundation on which their own complete niche ecosystems are built.  These are the rivers of Ophelia.

Ophelia - Millais.jpg

Sadly, rather than being treated like crown jewels, many are threatened and some disappearing.  Arguably rarer than, and as equally threatened, as rain forests; they are home to genetically unique species as much at risk as orang utangs.

 In the last part of the 20th century and first two decade of the 21st Century, the chalk streams of England have had their existence threatened with some on the verge of disappearing completely.  In its 2009 report ‘Rivers on the Edge’, WWF described chalk streams as having: “…been characterised by wasteful exploitation of a diminishing resource. They are on the edge of survival.”

Despite this, only about 15% of English chalk stream (by length) have any real degree of statutory protection. Only four benefit from international protection.

Environmental Desecration

Today many of our chalk streams look like this:

Dried up bed of River Chess

But lest you think this is a one-off rare occurrence, I include the picture below of the River Chess in 2006 to illustrate that. sadly, this has happened several times this century. One of the causes of this problem on the Chess, is that historically the licences that had been issued for the extraction of water, amounted to about 135% of what the aquifer could actually support. 

River Chess Dried up at Waterside

What a photo like this doesn’t show, is the locals who were desperately trying to save stranded fish and other aquatic life as the water disappeared.

River Chess In flow at Waterside.jpg

Over the decades the amount of water being extracted from aquifers has increased to the point where they do not always return to their historic winter levels.  In dry summers, the water extracted at source from the aquifers is increased whilst more, perhaps for irrigation, is taken from the rivers themselves.   For some chalk streams like the Ver and others in the Chiltern hills, there has been chronic over abstraction for more than 50 years. The problem is now acute and potentially terminal as the health of aquifer itself is threatened (and I’m not referring here to HS2 going through Chiltern Hills aquifer and how that may affect the hydrology).

Irrigating onion crop

Chalk streams are in crisis. 

Despite flooding in the North of this country and some rain in the South, many chalk streams are still dried up completely, or in part with new perennial heads forming down stream from the original river source. Clicking on the picture below will give access to the Chalk Streams in Crisis report published in June 2019. It has the advantage of combining accuracy with being informative and easy to read.

Chalk Streams in Crisis

In mid September I was in Amersham and watched the River Misbourne die. As the last of the water began to disapear, local residents moved the remaining fish to a nearby lake. In the end, all that was left were concentrations of waterfleas becoming ever more agitated as the water heated and eventually disapeared. 

Video river Misbourne

Yes, there were tears in my eyes; I’m not sure if it was due to frustration, anger or despair. 

Dry River Misbourne

Part of the anger I felt was because this was not an isolated incident, but one of several rivers destroyed by over abstraction of water from the aquifer.

Emma Howard Boyd Mimram tweet

Environment Agency Mimram Tweet

Nigel Parker River Mimram tweetFergal Sharkey Mimram Tweet

One of the benefits of social media is that it is possible to get a wider view of the current situation; as the above and following demonstrate.

Pang Valley Flood TweetFergal Sharkey Dried up rivers

As can be seen, local Environment Agency (EA) staff put some effort into doing what they can to mitigate as far as possible the effect of a loss of a chalk stream.  The reality is though that this is usually too little too late.  They cannot compensate for the total failure of the EA at a strategic and policy level.  Indeed, these exercises appear in some cases to be little more than a photo opportunity aimed at portraying the EA as proactive and responsible.  What they actually do is illustrate the sheer magnitude of the failure of the EA to properly manage and regulate any aspect of the fresh water environment in the UK.

Fish in River Pool

Removing and “saving” a few headline aquatic species, whilst of value, does not address the full degree of devastation the drying-up of a chalk stream brings.  To describe it as ecocide does not seem extreme. It is a loss of a complete eco system from mammals such as water voles, through the invertebrates that support so much of river life, to the single cell organisms and bacteria that contribute to water quality.  Some of these will be adapted, perhaps uniquely, to the stream, or even the pool in which they are found.

Failure of Regulation

The EA has introduced a system whereby, once flow rates reduce to a certain level, some licence holders are limited in the amount of water they can extract.  Whilst agreements can be made with water companies to limit water extraction at critical times, there are however commercial water users who would be entitled to crippling compensation if their extraction licences were revoked or limited. An alternative would be to transport water to them – equally as costly. This deters the water companies from limiting them.

Chub and Dace in Hogsmill River.jpg

There has been a drought in the South East of England for the last two years. The privately-owned water companies however, have refused to declare a drought or impose measures like introducing a hosepipe ban.  Politically this could be disastrous for them. It would highlight their failures to maintain a sustainable and resilient water supply; and failures on the part of government, the Environment Agency and Ofwat to effectively regulate the industry.

La Somme à La Chaussée-Tirancourt

By contrast in France, the only other country in the world to have chalk streams and also affected by the drought, have had strict limitations on the use of water from the affected aquifers.

L’Aa à Merck-Saint-Liévin

The lunacy illustrated below is at the head of the Hogsmill.  The black pipe should be discharging groundwater but over-abstraction of water from the aquifer has reached the point that its supply has ceased. Now water is being abstracted elsewhere, and fed into the stream to keep it running to meet the licence requirements to allow further extraction from the already failing aquifer that should be feeding it. This is unlikely to be of the right chemical composition and temperature for the organisms adapted to survive in the stream.

Head of Hogsmill River

Recently the EA has blamed three years of low rainfall as the primary cause of the problem. Like the rivers concerned, this does not hold water as the records show that the drying up of some of these rivers has been a regular occurence through out the first two decades of the 21st Century.  In a tweet reproduced further up in this post, The EA also blame water useage. If they had introduced drout orders in each of the last three summers; then at least some of that water useage would have been reduced.

The water companies in the UK make profit from supplying water. The more properties they supply, the bigger the profit. The Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) introduced in the year 2000 takes an holistic approach affecting all aspects of the ecology of a water body or system requiring improvements to meet certain minimum standards; including future sustainable use. 

River Cray near St Mary Cray

The UK government requires the water companies to: “…provide a secure supply of water to their customers over a 25-year period…” and “…produce a water resources management plan (WRMP) every 5 years that shows how they will achieve this”. To do this they have to take account of population growth, future housing and business development and the possible effects of climate change. (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Policy Paper )

River Lee in Hertfordshire

If there is not sanction on the water companies for failing to meet these regulatory requirements or for the environmental damage they have caused; then there is no incentive for them to do any thing other than continue to pump the well dry and maximise their profits.

River Wandle Morden Park


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