Most people wouldn’t believe that England’s green and pleasant lands are water-stressed; in fact, in recent years it seems as though the threat of severe flooding has rarely been out of the public eye. Nonetheless, we now find ourselves facing the real possibility of a formal drought being declared this summer, having experienced one of the driest winters for decades and an early Spring that saw just 15% of the long-term average rainfall in the Thames catchment.
Climate change and the increasingly variable weather that it will bring – from catastrophic floods to long periods of drought – need to be planned for. Unfortunately, thus far the majority of water companies have failed to do this meaningfully and continue to rely far too heavily on water abstraction from rivers and groundwater sources, rather than investing in increased winter storage, reducing leakage and water reuse. Water companies have also failed to effectively manage water consumption and make efforts to reduce demand, and we remain one of the only European countries without a universal water metering programme in place.
With population growth in the south east in particular, a lack of investment has meant massively increased pressure on our precious rivers (along with the aquifers that feed them), and 23% of England’s rivers are now at risk of over-abstraction, with serious environmental damage possible. This year some of our most valuable chalk streams – such as the Rivers Chess, Ver, Gade and Colne – are already running dry, and this could be catastrophic for aquatic wildlife over the months ahead.
The Government promised to reform the long-outdated not-fit-for-purpose water abstraction regime as far back as 2011, yet this process continues to be kicked into the long grass. However, the water companies’ Price Review 2019 (PR19) process gives a fantastic opportunity to achieve some extensive investment in improving environmental resilience through a number of key mechanisms. Blueprint has a number of priorities for these plans, and are calling for:
- All abstractions to be brought within sustainable limits and controls in place to prevent deterioration – while some good progress is being made (as part of the Restoring Sustainable Abstraction programme in PR14), companies need to make faster improvements, especially for those water bodies already failing to meet Water Framework Directive standards due to over-abstraction.
- The risk of deterioration due to increased abstraction to be addressed – over 300 water bodies have been identified as ‘at risk’ if more water is abstracted in the future, albeit within currently licensed limits. Companies need to investigate these risks with mitigation measures proactively implemented and impacts avoided.
- Supply side options to be environmentally acceptable – options such as bulk water transfers, water reuse and new reservoirs, should only be developed where it can be demonstrated that all reasonable efforts to reduce demand have been implemented.
Get behind the Blueprint for PR19 campaign to encourage water company investment in environmental resilience, using #BlueprintPR19 on Twitter.
Find out more about the ongoing drought and reform to abstraction in this Angling Trust video.
Campaigns Officer, Angling Trust