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  1. #1
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    Jun 2016
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    Default Why Englandís chalk-streams are drying and dying

    The pressure on our natural resources is illustrated in the quiet death of a chalk-stream. And this year 2017, they are drying and dying again. A natural disaster of our own making, happening on our doorsteps.*Wild Trout Trust founder and former President, Charles Rangeley-Wilson, highlights the plight of chalk streams in the south east in a guest blog for the World Wildlife Fund.
    What are chalk-streams?

    The low downland of southern and eastern England is drained by chalk-streams. There are over 200 in total. This might sound like a lot, until you realise this is almost a global total. Because, apart from a few in northern France, you donít get chalk-streams like ours in any other part of the world.
    River Itchen chalk stream in Hampshire, UK. © Charlotte Sams / WWF-UKBut southern and eastern England is the most populated part of our landscape Ė and the most intensively farmed too. People, farming and businesses all need water. Back in the decades after the War, when development was rising, the chalk aquifers that feed our chalk-streams were identified as a convenient and apparently limitless source of clean water. Abstraction licences were granted here there and everywhere, without a thought for the impact they might have on rivers.
    But these underground aquifers were not limitless. Taking water out of the ground had a direct impact on the chalk-streams fed by that water: some stopped flowing in the headwaters, or dried up in low rainfall years. Some stopped flowing at all. Most were reduced to shadows of what they once were.
    Those few who saw problems were ignored. Later, when their voices unified, the water companies tirelessly argued Ė with implied scientific credibility Ė that there was no link between abstraction and river flow. Time and again protest groups mourning the loss of their local stream, in which children once paddled or where trout and salmon spawned, were rebuffed and deflected.
    What is the situation today?

    When water companies were privatised the abstraction licences were bought as property rights. This made the problem several degrees more intractable. And that is more or less where we are today. Small gains have been made as result of the Herculean efforts of groups like Action for the River Kennet, or even individual river heroes like Richard Slocock in Dorset. But every river is a new battle-front and water companies still fight any attempt to claw back abstraction licences.
    The reason is obvious enough: a licence to abstract one megalitre of clean chalk water per day is worth about a million pounds a year. Take that licence back and the water company has to find the water from elsewhere at considerable cost. Even if the water company is willing to do this (some are) the change has to be justified and costed. OFWAT protects the public purse, but not so far in any meaningful way the environment or the psychic wellbeing we derive from living in a healthy vibrant landscape with flowing rivers.
    Thus, the whole system is paralysed in a give-and-take of environmental laws on the one hand and economic ones on the other. Meanwhile, the chalk-streams keep running out of water every time we hit a dry patch. As we have this summer.
    Photographing Englandís chalk-streams

    In early May Ė a time of year when chalk-streams should be bursting with life Ė I went to photograph those that (used to) flow through the hills north of London, rivers that were once famous for their trout fishing and wildlife. Almost everywhere I stopped on my Dante-esque tour the river was either an insipid ghost, or it was simply gone. Dry as a bone Ö in spring!
    I felt like a ghost hunter too. Itís incredibly difficult trying to take a photograph of something that isnít there. Mostly you get what looks like no more than a furrow in the ground, something that youíd think was never even supposed to be a river. You need a measuring gauge, or a bridge or a dry ford or a ďno fishingĒ sign, to show that what isnít there, should be.
    River Rib, Buntingford © Charles Rangeley-Wilson / WWFThe calcified brickwork on those bridges was also a giveaway. Chalk water leaves chalky deposits on brickwork and stones. Sometimes these stains derive from a time before the abstraction pumps started whirring: even when these rivers are ďfullĒ nowadays, the white brickwork extends above the surface. But in May, looking at the white stains, high and dry above nothing but dust, I wondered how on earth the water companies had argued for so long that abstraction makes no difference.
    Do you care about our rivers?

    A few years ago when making a for WWF, I asked everyone I could about what their local river meant to them and how they would feel if it dried up because of public water-supply abstraction. Universally the thought was an abhorrence. Rivers are cathartic and life-giving, places to relax and unwind and enjoy some peace and quiet or to play with the kids or the dog. Not around the Home Counties theyíre not. To be clear: without abstraction chalks-streams like the Chess, Beane and Mimram would not dry up for mile after unbroken mile Ö even in a drought.
    If we care about the natural world, then it is surely up to us to start by protecting that world under our feet. It doesnít have to be the environment versus the economy. By making small concessions we can make room for a vibrant natural world in the midst of a highly developed one. That is the real environmental challenge for our generation. Bringing back our chalk-streams would be a fine place to start.
    WWF are calling on the UK government to urgently address how weíre managing water. You can help by emailing your local MP and demanding action. In addition they want water companies to think about alternative ways of meeting water needs in their 2020-2025 business plans.

    Watch Charles’s film for WWF from 2009 again below…




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  2. #2
    Join Date
    Aug 2008
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    Excellent. A fine way of focussing the issues at home where we could potentially have an impact, or if not, at least understand the issues better.

    It's not just southern chalk streams that suffer from overabstraction, interception and mismanagement of water, perhaps just the most obvious example due to the nature of the Chalk hydrology and the size of the settlements.

    It's arguably (one of) the biggest single factor that threatens salmon too. We recently got our local MP to become involved in this, raising issues with the EA, and I'd urge others to do the same.
    "...hooking mortality is higher than you'd expect: further evidence that as a numbers game, catch-and-release fishing isn't always as straightforward as it seems"
    John Gierach


    Fed up of debating C&R - see Hidden Content

    Unless otherwise stated, data used in any graph/figure/table are Crown copyright, used with the permission of MSS and/or EA and/or ICES. MSS / EA / ICES are not responsible for interpretation of these data by third parties

  3. #3

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    for more information the book the life of a chalkstream is an excellent read.

  4. #4
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    To prove local action can work Action for the River Kennet, ARK, have battled hard for many years against abstraction. Recently we had a huge victory cutting abstraction from the Og a tributary, by getting the water company to reroute water supply from north of Swindon and stop pumping from the aquifer for Swindon and wroughton. It cost them tens of millions. A brilliant victory by a community action group. A real pity that so few of the members of ARK are rods. Just a handful despite the large number of rods here abouts. Sound familer. Rods great at moaning, not so good at doing.

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  6. #6
    Join Date
    Mar 2018
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    North west London
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    What's happened to the Kennet is criminal, mostly sanctioned by the EA. Crayfish, abstraction, fish farms, canalisation, for boaters, it's been an ecological disaster for the last 40yrs.
    Heads should roll.

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