Where have the rivers gone?

River beds are dry, wildlife is suffering, but no one has come close to mentioning a drought. What’s going on?

Is this a footpath meandering under an old bridge?  I’m afraid not. It’s actually a river: the River Quin in Hertfordshire in spring this year.  And plenty of other rivers, particularly in the south and east of England, have looked like this for periods this spring and early summer: the River Rib in Hertfordshire, the Chess in Buckinghamshire, the River Colne in London and many more.

Is this what you expect your local river to look like under normal conditions?

It’s true that parts of the country haven’t seen much rain, despite some heavy downpours. Indeed, 2016/2017 was a particularly dry winter and if the dry weather continues into the autumn, we may find ourselves on the cusp of an official drought in the south east.  But right now water is coming out of my taps just fine and I’ve not heard any mention of a hosepipe ban. I wonder what the fish in the River Quin think about that? Perhaps they should move to my local paddling pool?

Dry spells and drought are likely to become more frequent because of climate change, but, before we blame everything on the weather and climate change, I want to highlight the underlying problem. In many parts of the country we’re pumping more water out of our rivers than can be naturally replenished, in many cases we’re using water wastefully and national regulations around water use are insufficient to stop our rivers drying up.

WWF’s recent report, Water for Wildlife: tackling drought and unsustainable abstraction, brings attention to this crisis: the scale of over-abstraction from rivers, how the current approach to preventing damage by abstraction is taking too long, how wildlife is suffering, and how many people are concerned by the current state of affairs.

  • 24% of rivers in England are at risk from too much water being abstracted.
  • Low river flows affect the whole river ecosystem, from the smallest bug to the biggest fish.
  • At the current rate of progress, it could be 2050 before today’s damage is addressed.
  • 68% of people are worried about the impact on the environment of taking too much water from rivers.
  • Over 80% of people agree the Government should do more to encourage homes and businesses to be more water efficient.

Rivers aren’t just important for wildlife, they’re also important to people – to us. They help us connect to the natural world: we like to walk and picnic by rivers, let our children paddle and our dogs swim in rivers, and use rivers for fishing and boating. Thriving, flowing rivers also bring many economic benefits.

We must restore our rivers before it is too late. As well as working with our colleagues in Blueprint and supporting the Blueprint for PR19 campaign, at WWF we’re calling on the Government to urgently address how we’re managing water, and for water companies to think about alternative ways of meeting water needs in their 2020-2025 business plans.  Specifically, we’re asking for:

  • A national strategy to cut water waste to include engaging the public about the value of water, making every home and business water efficient, and making paying for water fairer through universal water metering
  • A revised process for dealing with abstraction licences that are already causing damage to habitats and wildlife. This would include support for water companies and other abstractors, such as farmers and businesses, to enable them to cope with potential reductions in the amount of water they’re able to abstract from rivers
  • Environmental limits on all water abstractions, to ensure there is enough water for wildlife in every river, and a mechanism to manage how reductions in abstraction are managed and shared across river catchment areas
  • Important European Legislation that protects rivers, such as the Water Framework Directive, to be fully transposed after Brexit.

The need for these changes have long been recognised by the Government: their 2011 Water White Paper, Water for Life, promised new legislation to address over-abstraction; and the 2013 paper, Making the Most of Every Drop, set out the Government’s abstraction reform proposals.

But, Brexit has put pressure on parliamentary time, and these urgent reforms seem to have been kicked into the long grass. We strongly urge the new government to reconsider and push water management up the agenda, and for water companies to set out how they will sustainably manage abstraction in their next round of business plans – before we stumble across more lost rivers.

Catherine Moncrieff
Freshwater Programme and Policy Manager, WWF-UK

We need to protect the environment for future generations

One of the main things I’m taking away from the election result was the voice of the young and I don’t necessarily mean under 25s – it looks like the under 45s swung the vote. The young clearly want change and I still feel I am in that bracket. So I challenge the government to show us, show us that it is not just the next five years that matter but the future. The future for those first time and second time voters, the future of our children, the future of our planet.

So, what could the Government do to safeguard the environment for the future – for our future – 80% of the British public want the environment to have the same if not stronger protection after Brexit[1] and wetlands alone provide over £7 billion in services a year.

Perhaps we should look to Wales. Back in 2015, the Welsh Government created an Act dedicated to safeguarding the future from short-term thinking, known as the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. This means that all public bodies in Wales now need to consider how their decisions and policies help towards the goals under the Act. These goals include a resilient Wales and a globally responsible Wales. The former looks to “maintain and enhance a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example climate change).” We have no similar driver in England, simply a repeated rhetoric “that we will leave the environment in a better state than we found it”, which you’d think couldn’t be hard considering less than one fifth of our water bodies are in good ecological health and 13% of wetland species are nationally threatened[2].

Our children have less contact with nature than ever before and miss out on the health and well-being benefits that result. Yet housing plans threaten to stifle communities in an attempt to build as many houses as cheaply as possible. Sustainable drainage can help provide wildlife habitats in urban environments whilst also reducing surface water flood risk, improving water quality as well as enhancing local areas. Natural capital and environmental and social cost benefit should be integrated across ALL Government departments and create opportunities and drivers to make our cities bluer and greener.

There are so many opportunities ahead of us, including creating an agricultural system which delivers public goods for public money and offers a secure future for young farmers. However, Government has kicked into long grass proposals to put in place a sustainable and fairer water abstraction regime. Climate change will bring much more erratic weather events and we need to be certain that our systems are resilient and as effective as they can be to deal with these changes. Government must deliver a sustainable abstraction regime by 2020.

We also need to restore, create and enhance wetlands. Not just because coastal wetlands can help buffer communities against sea level rise or because restoring river habitats can help reduce flooding, but because ponds and lakes and wetlands are important for their own sake, for the wildlife that rely on them and the enjoyment we get from them.

If Westminster had the same duty as those in Wales placed upon them would it make a difference? Let’s not keep hearing that the Government will leave the environment in a better state than they found it – it’s time to show us.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

[1] https://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/yougov-survey-brexit-environment-august-2016-101683.pdf

[2] http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/State%20of%20Nature%20UK%20report_%2020%20Sept_tcm9-424984.pdf

Resilient Water – How to Manage Our Precious Water Resources

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 bare river bed of the River Chess in Chesham, Buckinghamshire.
The bare river bed of the River Chess in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, which has run dry due to a combination of low winter rainfall and over-abstraction.

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.
The River Colne in Hertfordshire
The River Colne in Hertfordshire – a fantastic and extremely popular river for angling – is already on its bones.

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.

James Champkin
Campaigns Officer, Angling Trust

Ensuring water companies deliver for nature

Over the next 12-15 months water companies in England and Wales will be drawing up plans as part of PR19 (Periodic Review 2019) for their investments between 2020 to 2025. In the blog below, Nathan Richardson sets out why it is important to influence the content of these plans so that they deliver for nature.

 Why are we engaging with water companies?

The water companies in England and Wales have invested £130 billion in environmental management over the last 25 years with a further £42 billion to be spent by 2020. Alongside the provision of safe drinking water, this investment has delivered significant improvements in river and bathing water quality and is helping address the impacts of abstraction on some of most important wildlife sites.

Continue reading “Ensuring water companies deliver for nature”

Planning for Drought?

Report Cover
Published September 2016

Triggered by increasing concerns over the resilience of our water supply system to future drought the Water Resources Long-term Planning Framework was published by Water UK in September 2016. It highlights how resilience to drought is diminishing due to climate change, population growth and the need to address unsustainable abstraction.

Shortfalls in the order of more than 800Ml/d are predicted in the South-East by 2040 under even relatively moderate future scenarios (see Figure 1).  To put this in context, this shortfall is equivalent to the daily water consumption of around 5 million people with the economic cost of a single day of lost supply across England and Wales estimated at £1.3 billion. In response the report puts forward potential solutions involving a mix of more demand management, new and bigger reservoirs, effluent reuse and water transfers (see Figure 2).

So what are the top issues emerging from this groundbreaking study?

1.      Recognising the problem – and acting on it

We are facing an increasing risk of drought which will impact on the natural environment.  The recent State of Nature (2016) report  found 13% of our freshwater species are already at risk of extinction with hydrological change identified as the 5th largest driver for change across all species assessed.  More frequent and more severe droughts, as predicted by the study, will only exacerbate this threat to nature. Government, regulators, water companies and the environmental sector need to ensure that the response is not to just take more and more water from the natural environment.

Figure 1 Potential deficits by 2040 and 2065 under the portfolios:

maps

2. Demand management – doing more

It is clear from the report that water companies need to raise their game on demand management and that they need to do it sooner rather than later. Demand management can be a win : win as not only does it improve resilience to drought it also reduces the amount of water we need to abstract from the environment at all times.

 We will be promoting greater action on demand management in the current round of Water Resource Management Planning and company business planning for 2020-2025 (PR19). This means water companies going further and faster than currently planned with leakage reduction and metering; developing and using smart tariffs and incentives to encourage less water use and retrofitting water efficiency measures to existing homes. It also means joining us in calling for planning policies and building regulations that lead to far greater water efficiency being built into new properties, particularly in vulnerable areas.

3. New supply side solutions – difficult choices ahead

Even with enhanced demand management, new supply side solutions such as water transfers between regions and new and bigger reservoirs are predicted to be needed by 2040. They will have environmental impacts both positive and negative. Unfortunately the report does not go into any detail on these impacts being primarily a hydrological and economic analysis.  This is a major gap that needs to be addressed at a comparable national scale.

 We do not yet have the information necessary to evaluate options such as new in-catchment storage, water transfers and desalination. What we need to see is thorough environmental assessment of alternative strategic options at national, regional and company scales and evidence that environmental considerations are being properly factored into the options analysis and decision making processes.

Figure 2 Potential strategic solutions put forward in the study:

map

4. WFD no-deterioration risk – a hidden issue

The report exposes the potential scale of a hitherto relatively unknown issue around currently unused “paper” water that companies have on their licenses and have been relying on in their calculations of deployable output (i.e. how much water they can put into supply).  If the use of this paper water could result in deterioration in Water Framework Directive (WFD) status then all or some of it will need to be removed due to the WFD “no-deterioration” principle. This poses a major issue which could amount to several 100Ml/d across companies in water scarce areas such as Severn Trent, Thames, Southern and Anglian.

 This ”paper” water has not yet been used so assessing the risk of deterioration is technically very challenging. We may well see the regulators and companies looking for a way forward, for example linking its use to enhanced monitoring with claw back if impacts emerge.  However, in all water bodies that companies rely on for abstraction there is a great opportunity for the environmental sector and companies to work together to increase their natural resilience to low flows and to abstraction through techniques such as river restoration and habitat enhancement. As the report makes clear “a resilient natural environment forms the basis for sustainable water supplies”.

We should welcome this ground breaking report. It provides a wake-up call, bringing to our attention the increasing water supply risks we face in the future. It makes a useful contribution to the discussion around the ways we can address those risks and ensure a resilient future.  However, the lack of any substantive consideration of the environmental impact of future droughts, or of the positive and negative impacts of potential solutions, is a significant gap which needs to be addressed at national, regional and company scales.

Dr Nathan Richardson, Senior Policy Officer, RSPB
nathan.richardson@rspb.org.uk
Tel. 01767 693447

What the EU referendum means for water

The water environment and everything it means for us needs to be protected in an era of change post the EU referendum results. Our wetland wildlife, our drinking water, our enjoyment of walking by a river full of life, and the food and farming industries all rely on a healthy water environment.

This is in no way secure. Our major legislation supporting clean water is driven by being a member of the European Union, from the Water Framework Directive and the Urban Waste Water Directive to the Common Agricultural Policy which supports good land management. We need to ensure that the Government does not weaken the protections that give us clean water and that the amount of water we take from the environment is sustainable. This will not be easy. There are so many demands on our water environment from the energy industry, agriculture, not to mention climate change and population growth; the health of our waters is bound to be more vulnerable as everyone clamours to be heard. We need to be the voice for water, for nature.

Continue reading “What the EU referendum means for water”