Over the years I have been involved in some single cause environmental campaigns, and observed others. Success, where it has come, has mostly been won when there has been one combined consistent and coherent voice. Most have also had a clearly stated set of goals around which support could coalesce and a campaign strategy be built.
Currently there are one or two prominent individuals and many interest groups acting as advocates for chalk streams. There is even a conference with the water companies and regulator proposed for the autumn. However, if they are to survive, I believe the chalk streams of England now need such a unified voice, and a clear manifesto that sets minimum acceptable standards for chalk stream health.
The following is offered as a discussion document and suggestions in the hope that someone will come forward to take it further. Perhaps one of the existing groups can set up a Zoom conference and invite all the others to appoint a representative to join in.
The chalk streams of England are one of the rarest habitats in the world, arguably more threatened than the rainforests. There are only about 200 in the whole world with the vast majority being in the South and East of England. The few that aren’t, are in Northern France. In recent years the very existence of these streams in England has been threatened, with most suffering some kind of environmental damage; and in some cases, extinction level harm.
Water in chalks streams is some of the freshest and cleanest to be found due to the filtering effect provided by the chalk. This has resulted in it being exploited by the water companies to the point where streams have dried up completely.
The privately-owned water companies make profit from supplying water. There has been a drought in the South East of England for the last three years, however, they have refused to impose measures like introducing a hosepipe ban. Politically this could be disastrous for them. It would highlight their failures to develop and maintain a sustainable and resilient water supply; and failures on the part of government, the Environment Agency and Ofwat to effectively regulate the industry.
Water companies also routinely release untreated sewage into rivers causing pollution and further environmental degradation.
Some pension funds have shareholdings in the water companies and effectively elect directors. They therefore bear some of the responsibilities for these actions. Despite apparently being contrary to their sustainable development and ethical commitments, some of these funds appear to support the water companies on the basis of maximum dividend at any price.
There are questions relating to whether the current government is about to lower environmental standards, and regulation of bodies like water companies and investment funds.
There is some media coverage of the current chalk stream crisis. Nationally this often involves a prominent individual and, locally, interest groups and associations. There is regular social media activity; often using the hashtag #chalkstreamsincrisis. Last year there was an adjournment debate in the House of Commons and, in June this year, the Public Accounts Committee questioned Defra, Ofwat and the Environment Agency over their management of the water companies and water supply.
Companies and regulators are used to handling data and measuring performance against defined standards. Having a manifesto that gives standards means that they can be held to account properly and not against their own cosily derived criteria. The manifesto standards would mean that in any discussion the water companies will know what is expected of them, making it more difficult to offer some sop rather than taking proper action. Politicians and those creating environmental policies will also know what is expected and, with sufficient public support, demanded of them. When campaigners are asked what they want, the answer will be there in detail.
Despite legislation and twenty years of talking, the chalk streams of England are once again beginning to dry. NOW, more than ever before, a manifesto for their future is required.
The Campaign for Chalk Streams
I propose that an organisation with this name is established as both a charity and a limited company. Initially membership would be open to all organisations with an interest in preserving and restoring chalk streams. This will hopefully provide a degree of base funding. Individual supporter membership could follow, but structured so as not to harm existing groups.
This would require groups that perhaps do not at first appear to be natural allies to come together. For example, the angling community and the aquatic re-wilders may not agree on how a stream is managed – but their arguments are pointless if in the meantime the chalk streams have disappeared. Another example would be the farmer interested in maintaining local levels of ground water and the ecologist advocating wide river bank margins to reduce agricultural run-off. These arguments are surely a luxury for another day.
I have established this kind of umbrella organisation before and it offers a number of advantages. It can do the hard campaigning that local groups may not feel able to do. It can confront water companies or government, initiate legal action or challenge the media; whilst the local groups can maintain their existing relationships with these organisations. Once a campaign to secure a minimum standard of future for the chalk streams has been successful, the organisation can be dissolved leaving the local groups with their relationships intact to continue with their monitoring and care of the chalk streams.
The organisation should:
Ideally have a full-time director and support staff. There should be a ‘high profile’ Chair-person or President to help maintain the profile of the organisation and cause.
Campaign for a minimum level of Environmental Protection for all chalk streams and Enhanced Protection for key rivers.
Campaign for effective regulation by a strong regulator that can impose penalties that make compliance more advantageous than facing the punishment – i.e. it no longer being cheaper and easier to pay fines rather than comply with legal obligations.
Campaign for dividends paid by water companies to be capped to a diminishing percentage of the previous year’s dividend, following each pollution, or excessive reduction of water flow, incident.
Campaign for an effective regeneration, by the relevant water company, of sections of chalk stream that in the last ten years have dried out at any point due to over abstraction of water. To include creating a profile of all species associated with that particular section of chalk stream: based on historical records, surveys of contiguous ecosystems and any relocated specimens; and the creation of a genetic library for each so that any restocking comes from an appropriate population. To include plant, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates and bacteria; not just fish.
Create a minimum standard for the health of each chalk stream:
Create a minimum standard for river flow.
Create a minimum standard for river water quality.
Create a biodiversity standard – all species not just key indicator species.
These demands and standards should clearly be expressed in a ‘Manifesto for Chalk Streams’.
Maintain press and media awareness of, and interest in, these issues.
Become the one-stop-shop of choice for those requiring quality information relating to the welfare of chalk streams.
Inform and affect policy through lobbying politicians, local and national government.
Promote public awareness of the importance of chalk streams as internationally rare and threatened ecosystems.
Promote public involvement in the management and maintenance of chalk streams through involvement in existing local support groups and participation in consultation processes.
Promote citizen science and encourage school science departments and universities to set up monitoring programmes as part of their field studies.
Promote, and fund, academic research.
Raise awareness of the threat to chalk streams within the wider environmental movement both nationally and internationally.
Promote agricultural practices that protect streams from animal waste or chemical run-off.
Promote measures to prevent road and urban run-off into chalk streams including infrastructure re-engineering where required.
Promote individual responsibility for personal water consumption.
A Manifesto for Chalk Streams.
- The water flow in any chalk stream should not drop below the 25-year average for the period 1976 – 2000, for that day of the year. Where it drops below 75% of that average for more than five days, water abstraction from the source aquifer shall immediately be reduced by not less than 20% of the previous seven-day average. For each subsequent consecutive five-day period of reduced water flow, the abstraction shall be reduced by a further 20% until such time as the water flow is restored. If the period of reduced flow lasts for ten days, drought measures shall immediately be implemented.
- If on 30 April each year the level of groundwater in any aquifer feeding a chalk stream is less than 80% of 25-year average for the period 1976 – 2000, the permitted abstraction from that aquifer shall be reduced by not less than 20% of the date average for the previous five years. If it is less than 60%, the permitted abstraction shall be reduced by not less than 50% of the date average for the previous five years, and drought measures shall immediately be implemented. If on any other date in the year, the level of groundwater in the aquifer falls below 50% of the 1976 – 2000 average for that day of the year, the permitted abstraction shall be reduced by not less than 50% of the date average for the previous five years, and drought measures shall immediately be implemented.
- Where water flow in a stream reduces to a point where the full biodiversity can no longer be maintained, or it ceases to flow completely, all water abstraction shall cease until the water flow returns to 50% of the norm, at which point the two clauses above will again apply. Following such an event the water company shall be responsible for restoring, from genetically matched populations, all species to population levels shown in the biodiversity standard.
- Where a chalk stream has no designated environmental protection, in all planning and other matters it will considered to have the same status as a SSSI.
- There shall be a presumption that there will be no development within five metres of the bank of a chalk stream. Where there is a development on land running to the bank of a chalk stream, there shall be a two-metre-wide margin from the edge of the bank left for natural wild growth.
- Where there is provision for rain or other waste-water run-off in to a chalk stream, the property owner or relevant highway authority, shall reduce this by 50% by 2025, and completely by 2030. Blue-green measures to attenuate flow and adequately filter the water shall be an acceptable alternative.
- All sewage, industrial waste, and waste-water processing plants shall have the capacity to handle up to, and including, one in 50 years level incidences. All treated water discharged from these plants into a chalk stream should be chemically balanced, to match that from the source aquifer of the stream, and be free of micro-plastics.
- In the event of a pollution incident; failure to stop it, take measures to mitigate the effects (e.g. oxygenation), and advise all interested authorities; at the earliest opportunity, shall be considered aggravating factors resulting in more severe punishment. If there are more than five incidents by the same polluter in the same stream, in any 12-month period, the directors (including non-executive) or owners of that business may be held personally liable and fined or imprisoned.
- During a pollution incident; the polluter shall start clean-up operations at the earliest opportunity, including whilst the event is still happening. The response should incorporate teams hand picking items such as wipes.
- Where reasonably practicable, any man-made obstacles such as dams, weirs or flood control measures shall be removed from chalk streams to promote fish migration and greater biodiversity in the upper reaches. Where this is not possible, fish ladders, eel passes and other bypasses shall be installed for the same purpose.
- No new fish farms, or expansion of existing ones, will be permitted in chalk streams. No fish that are genetically different to the local population shall be farmed in any chalk stream. Statutory provision shall be made requiring the owners of any such fish farm to arrange for routine monthly health and disease screening of the fish stocks, with mandatory reporting of results.
- The owners of any fish farm shall routinely monitor dissolved oxygen levels, urea levels and river bed contamination for one mile downstream from the farm. They shall be required to clean the river bed of excess amounts of waste food or fish waste product; and should urea levels exceed a predetermined level, immediately reduce stock levels.
- It is acknowledged that 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. They support their own niche ecosystem and deserve the highest levels of environmental protection.
Sir Charles Walker MP, speaking last year in the House of Commons, stated:
“I find it extraordinary, given our own poor environmental record, that colleagues in this House lecture Indonesia and Brazil so freely on their responsibility to the rain forests. Of course, those two countries have a huge responsibility to the rain forests, but if we cannot save the chalk streams that are literally in our own backyard, what are we doing lecturing other countries on their environmental responsibilities? Saving the world does not start with the rest of the world. Saving the world starts right here, right now, doing our bit locally with our chalk streams—think locally, act globally.” Hansard Vol.663 col 1168 22 July 2019.
Forty years ago, I would have relished the challenge of such a campaign. Today is no longer my time; but I’m sure that amongst the various groups set up to protect particular chalk streams, there are the women and men whose time is today and tomorrow. I invite them to step forward, gird their loins and not ask or discuss, but demand that the chalk streams of England are saved, and saved now – not for us but for the world and the future.
Should you wish to discuss this further with me, volunteer to co-ordinate responses or host a video meeting, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org These links are to some blogs about chalk streams that I have posted: