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Paul Harding: Action needed now to protect our chalk streams

January 17, 2021 11:04 AM
By Paul Harding

Chalk streams

The Chilterns are blessed with natural beauty, and 2020 has seen record numbers of us out benefiting from these natural assets. We've scaled back plans for foreign travel, brought our horizons closer, to the local and more immediate, and (re)discovered just how important they can be. Yet our society, our development, and our economy damage what is there, putting this beautiful heritage at risk, for us and for future generations. Talking to those who work to understand and protect this incredible natural heritage, you soon come to the questions: Are we being good stewards? Are we being good ancestors?

Our Natural Heritage at Risk

85% of the world's chalk streams are in the UK. And many of the UK's examples are close to us in the Chilterns. These streams influenced our history: our settlements, our early industries, the routes we travel, and how we live today. Many of you reading this will have experienced how beautiful the clear waters can be - the gentle currents flowing through green fields, woodland, and meadows, alongside our roads, bounding our playing fields, and passing behind lucky residents' gardens.

Chalk streams arise from springs that well up from the natural aquifers sitting under the Chilterns. Unfortunately, the companies that supply our water also use these aquifers to "abstract" water. This abstraction can put extreme pressure on our streams and their ecosystems - not all of it necessary. Meanwhile, the increasing frequency of drought and flooding - both persuasively linked to climate change - further complicate the matter. Droughts bring water scarcity. Floods and high rainfall can result in wastewater treatment facilities releasing water that falls short of the usual standards - causing damage to aquatic life. Aging and inadequate infrastructure make contamination an added danger. And then of course, there are the uncertainties around HS2's drilling and tunneling in the area (as if we needed another reason to dislike that project!)

But it's us too. At around 173 litres/person/day, water usage in the Chilterns is far above the national average (just over 140 litres/person/day). New housing developments in the area put a high and increasing burden on the water companies, affecting the natural assets they exploit, sometimes wastefully, to serve these growing needs.

A recent Chalk Steam Summit organised by CRAG (Chiltern Rivers Action Group) saw the water companies pledge to protect these natural wonders. This is good news. However, as for-profit companies, they must also answer to their shareholders. Their cycles of management priorities and profits mean it is not always easy for them to follow through on protecting the environment…unless regulations are strengthened and enforced.

What Can Be Done?

This is a complex problem and requires a complex and holistic set of solutions.

On the demand side, education and "nudge" action (such as mandatory water meters) will reduce individual demand. On the supply side, there are plans to build a reservoir to take the pressure off extraction from the Chilterns, and to bring water from the North to the area. Both schemes are intended to cover the additional demand from new developments - not to take existing pressure off the chalk stream systems. But even these plans are slow-moving and don't get sufficient political attention or support. There's even a "radical" idea to move extraction downstream (to where the chalk stream water meets the Thames) and pump the water back up to customers in our area. Better land management and drainage practices can help alleviate the problems caused by flooding too. Affinity Water have recently stopped taking groundwater from the Chess river, and they have longer-term plans to reduce abstraction in the River Ver, River Mimram, Upper River Lea and River Misbourne; but not until 2024.

Thames Water has made pledges to end unsustainable extraction from Chalk Streams, but again, many of their proposed initiatives will also not take effect until 2024.

Sitting atop all this is the need for more explicit and more stringent regulations. A transparent and ethical legal & regulatory environment could help companies, developers, and us (as individuals) make good, ethical, choices. We need clear, non-partisan, comprehensive, fair policy that acknowledges the total value of these natural assets, not just when they are exploited commercially for our consumption, but also their importance to our lives, culture, and mental well-being. Perhaps most important, they are a legacy we are duty-bound to pass on to future generations in the best condition possible.

The 2019 Liberal Democrat Manifesto focuses on Saving Nature and the Countryside through a Nature Act. This includes a pledge to "Protect and restore England's lakes, rivers and wetlands, including thorough reform of water management and higher water efficiency standards...". Our chalk streams urgently need this protection.

You can find out more at https://www.libdems.org.uk/plan

Paul Harding

Candidate, Chiltern Ridges

Paul Harding