Degraded Chalk Stream Environments

Part of Petition - Shelton Road Planning Application – in the House of Commons at 7:47 pm on 22nd July 2019.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee 7:47 pm, 22nd July 2019

I entirely agree. I know Paul Jennings well; he is one of the greatest friends any chalk stream could have. He is a conservationist of the highest order, and he deserves our full congratulations and respect for the tenacity that he has shown in ensuring that the issues that afflict so many of our chalk streams are kept somewhat in abeyance on the Chess. However, I am afraid that even he would admit that he has not always been successful in doing that.

As I was saying, in the past 10 years there have been five dry events in the Upper Chess. In the 20 years prior to that, there were three. Drier years mean more abstraction, and things are only going to get worse. Affinity Water serves the home counties north of London, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham and my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Oliver Heald will know. Affinity has no reservoirs. It only abstracts waters from the chalk aquifers—that is the only place it can get its water from. As we know, the aquifers it abstracts from are those that feed the rivers that are currently dying. Affinity currently serves 3.6 million people. In 20 years’ time that number will be nearer to 4.5 million people. Where on earth is the water going to come from? If we go on as we are now, the water will come out of the aquifers and we will not have a single chalk stream running in Hertfordshire or Buckinghamshire. That is not an exaggeration; that is where we are at.

Affinity has tried, within the constraints that it is operating under—bearing in mind that it has no reservoir. It reduced pumping at one pumping station on the River Beane by 90%, which was actually a very brave thing to do. Yet that part of the river has not started flowing again because the long-term damage to aquifers that have been used and abused for the past 30, 40 or 50 years is so extreme that it may take decades to recover.

It is not just abstraction that kills rivers; it is also what happens after the abstraction. If companies are abstracting water from chalk streams, they either dry them out—and that does kill them—or they reduce the flow. When there is low flow in a river, it cannot get rid of pollutants; pollutants concentrate. A river that is flowing well can move pollutants on down it, dilute them and dissolve them. This does not happen when a river is being extracted to death. So what is the next consequence of extraction? We get topsoil run-off, which just sinks to the bottom of rivers and depletes them of oxygen. It sticks to the chalk at the bottom, destroying any oxygen that can get into the chalk for the small invertebrates that live in it. Then there is phosphorus from agriculture and sewage works, which causes oxygen depletion from algal blooms and eutrophication. Basically, we have environments that cannot support life, or which support limited life, because there is no oxygen. Agricultural pesticides wash in off the fields, destroying biodiversity and wiping out invertebrates and the fly life that comes from them. Then there are the many septic tanks up and down the country that are unregulated and leaking into groundwater that finds its way into rivers. The challenge is immense.

As I said, this is an environmental crisis of a monumental scale that we are failing to address. Fundamentally, we need to reduce abstraction now. Thames Water, which I have worked closely with at times, has done that on the River Chess and the River Cray, but it wants to do more—and quite frankly it needs to do more. So what is Thames Water doing? It is making efforts to reduce leakage, and those are to be welcomed and applauded. It can introduce metering, promote water efficiency, and go into schools to educate children as to the importance of water, but, at most, these efforts will reduce consumption in the area it serves from 142 litres per day to 136 litres per day. That is just not a significant decrease. It is an important amount of water, but at 3.5% it is not going to save the day. Thames Water estimates that by 2045 there will be a shortfall of 350 million litres of water a day between the amount of water available and the amount needed.

There is only one game-changing solution to this crisis, and that is to create more storage capacity, which we do by building more reservoirs. I think that the last major reservoir we built was the Queen Mother reservoir for the east and south-east of England in 1974, so we have grown the population by millions but we have not put in any additional water storage. If we want to save our chalk stream rivers, of which we have 85% of the world’s resource, then we really have to build reservoirs. The spade-ready reservoir that has been on the books for 12 years but has been blocked by a well-organised group of 20 people is the Abingdon reservoir in Oxfordshire. That is a game changer. If we get the Abingdon reservoir built, that starts to create the capacity we need, but at the rate the population of London and the south-east is growing, we will need more than one Abingdon—we will need two or three Abingdons. Until we start capturing water at the times of plenty and using it during dry periods like we are experiencing now, we will remain in trouble. We will be in a position where our own environmental record falls well short of where it should be, and we will limit our ability to change the way that other countries handle their natural resources, because they can look at us and say, “What on earth are you doing? You are in no position to lecture us.”

I could go on at great length, but I am not going to. In fact, I may have already gone on at great length, but this subject warrants some exploration. Finally, I would like to thank the Angling Trust, particularly Martin Salter—a former Member here—and Stuart Singleton-White, for the amazing document they have published, “Chalk Streams in Crisis”. It really is an extremely good, but somewhat depressing and sad, read. It is a call to arms. If we are to be taken seriously, we have to make changes to the way in which we approach our valuable and precious ecosystems. One of the most valuable and precious is our chalk streams, and, as I said, we have a lamentable record in this area.