April 21 is World Fish Migration Day, the perfect opportunity to celebrate a recent agreement which will help protect rare chalk streams, home to trout and migratory fish such as salmon. These rivers, when in pristine condition, are beautiful, unique habitats. Their crystal clear waters have been filtered through chalk aquifers. Their clean gravel beds and emerald underwater plants support a myriad of invertebrates and species such as brown trout, Atlantic salmon, water vole and kingfisher – they have been described as our “water rainforests”.
These habitats exist only in south and east England, and small pockets of northern France. They’re ours to protect but are under threat because too much water is being taken, or abstracted, from them for homes and businesses. The naturally filtered water of chalk streams requires little treatment and is a cheap source of water. As demand for water grows, these water sources are under increasing pressure.
At the end of March 2018, the UK Government’s Environment Agency and water utility company Southern Water reached an agreement which will help to prevent unsustainable abstraction of water from the rivers Itchen and Test in Hampshire. This is important for the corner of England where these chalk streams exist, and also sends a clear message about how water should be valued and managed nationally and internationally. But how did this come about?
The agreement was reached at a public inquiry. The Environment Agency had called for immediate reductions to five of Southern Water’s abstraction licences on the rivers Itchen and Test to prevent over-abstraction and protect these vulnerable habitats in line with the EU Habitats Directive and the Water Framework Directive. Southern Water objected to this, on the grounds that it would impact its ability to provide the public with water during periods of drought, compromising its duty under the Water Industry Act 1991. It argued that more time was needed to develop alternative sources of supply on the basis of Imperative Reasons of Overriding Public Interest (IROPI) under the Habitats Directive. And so a public inquiry was called.
WWF (with Salmon and Trout Conservation-UK) submitted a detailed Joint Statement of Case to the public inquiry in support of the Environment Agency’s proposals. We pointed out that the EU Water Framework Directive and Habitats Directive place legal obligations on the UK meaning we needed to achieve good ecological status on both rivers and favourable conservation status on the Itchen by 2015. These targets have not been reached, so the UK has been violating the Water Framework Directive since 2015. Moreover, we argued that the reductions to the abstractions would not cause public water supply to be jeopardised: Southern Water would always have the option, during a time of extreme water shortage, to apply for a drought order to abstract further from these rivers.
These efforts paid off. At the start of the inquiry Southern Water accepted the Environment Agency’s proposals. In doing this, it’s making an important commitment to reduce its reliance on water from chalk streams and aquifers. The two parties agreed a process for instigating and executing drought orders. The process enables further abstraction from the rivers during times of extreme water shortage, but only if ecological impacts are mitigated as far as possible. Moreover, use of drought orders on these rivers will only be valid until alternative water supplies (such as a water reuse scheme and a reservoir to store water) become available as soon as possible and within 10 years at the outside.
Subject to the Secretary of State’s final decision, this agreement is a double win – for the environment and for securing water supply to businesses and homes. But it shouldn’t have taken so many years to get here, and it should never have got to the point of a public inquiry, which is a huge waste of public resources.
For me, this is an example of how water resources planning should not be done. There are lessons to be learnt. We have been working with Southern Water and the Environment Agency for nearly 10 years to tackle over-abstraction on these rivers, and they were aware long ago that reductions to these abstractions needed to be made. Southern Water failed to invest sufficiently and quickly enough in making its supply more resilient by developing alternative sources of water supply. Meanwhile, the Environment Agency – as the regulator – should have been more assertive earlier in the process about the reductions that needed to be made and by when. That said, in the last two years, the Agency has done very well to stick to its guns and secure this agreement.
This case sends a clear message to water companies and regulators: water resources planning must do better at protecting our unique freshwater ecosystems, and uphold the legislation that enables this to be done – the Water Framework and Habitats Directives. We must reduce our reliance on ecologically sensitive habitats, making better use of water that is already abstracted, for a future where people and nature thrive.