Degraded Chalk Stream Environments

Part of Petition - Shelton Road Planning Application – in the House of Commons at 8:46 pm on 22nd July 2019.

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Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 8:46 pm, 22nd July 2019

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. For several years there has been an economic calculation about the cost of repairing the causes of leakages rather than doing something else to keep water flowing. I will not say that the price of repairs is irrelevant, but it is not only the only factor under consideration. Water users struggle. My right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan spoke extensively about the water consumption of residents, and the need for us to consume less. If the water companies are allowed not to take the issue quite as seriously as they have been, why should the end user make a difference? I think that the situation is changing, but we need to recognise that the economics do not always add up.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, this matter is devolved. Our 25-year environment plan for England, which concerns reserved matters, sets out our commitment to protect our water environment and how we will do that, to ensure that there is enough water for the environment as well as for homes and businesses.

Our abstraction reform plan, launched in 2017, explains how we will ensure that abstractors can access the water that they need, and that there is enough water in our rivers, and groundwater, to maintain habitats and water quality. That includes reducing the damaging abstraction of water from rivers and groundwater, so that by 2021 the proportion of water bodies with enough water to support environmental standards will increase from 82% to 90% for surface water bodies, and from 72% to 77% for groundwater bodies. Earlier this year we published our abstraction reform progress report to Parliament, which shows that the Environment Agency is on track to meet those targets.

The Environment Agency has already reviewed thousands of abstraction licences, and has changed many of the most damaging. Seventy-one abstraction licences on 15 chalk streams across England have now been changed. Those changes will return 16 million cubic metres of water per year to the chalk streams, and will remove the risk of another 8 million cubic metres per year being taken. This is equivalent to the average annual domestic water use of approximately 200,000 people, the approximate population of Oxford.

Developing a stronger catchment focus is a key aspect of abstraction reform. The Environment Agency is now testing innovative solutions to protect the environment and improve access to water in priority catchments. The Cam and Ely Ouse and East Suffolk priority catchments both contain rivers that are fed by chalk groundwater. In these priority catchments, there are now stakeholder groups, which are made up of a wide variety of abstractors with an Environment Agency co-ordinator, who are working together to develop and trial new solutions to address sustainability issues. I look forward to the Environment Agency launching more of these water resource catchments later this year.

The River Bulbourne in Hertfordshire is impacted by the Canal and River Trust operations including groundwater abstractions. The Environment Agency is presently negotiating delivery of recommended solutions with the trust. Affinity Water has also completed an investigation for the River Bulbourne and as a result will implement river restoration projects in the catchment by 2025, subject to its business plan being approved by Ofwat, and I see no reason why Ofwat will reject it. The Environment Agency’s chalk stream partnership “Bringing Back the Bulbourne” has been an award-winning success story.

Turning to the River Kennet in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Richard Benyon, the Environment Agency, working with Thames Water, has changed abstraction licences that impact the Kennet, Wye and Hughenden stream. This includes reducing Thames Water’s licence at Axford to restrict groundwater abstraction when flows are low, revoking its Ogbourne licence, and investing in a £30 million pipeline that prevents up to 10 million litres of groundwater from being abstracted when river levels are low.

Turning to parts of north London and an issue not directly in the constituency of the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham but close to the heart of Feargal Sharkey, the River Lee below Ware weir lock splits between the old River Lee and the Lee navigation. The Loop was the original course of the River Lee and is the site of two fisheries clubs. Flows in the loop are influenced by the volumes abstracted upstream from the Lee by Thames Water and by navigation activities. The Environment Agency seeks to manage flows on the Lee between Thames Water, the Canal and River Trust and the Amwell Magna loop. Thames Water operates under a voluntary flow trigger to reduce its abstraction volumes. This assists with downstream flows but its abstraction is still a significant volume of the available flow. Thames Water has invested in habitat enhancement improvements in the loop, working with the fisheries and the Environment Agency.

Several contributors to the debate talked about the impact of dry weather on chalk streams. Some of our chalk streams are currently showing flow impacts that could be attributed to the prolonged dry weather we have experienced over the last couple of years. Impacts are visible in chalk streams in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, north London, Lincolnshire and Northampton, but I have to admit that the national picture is variable.

The impacts we are seeing in chalk streams include changes to fish movement, a decline in the numbers of invertebrates and an increase in algae. The Environment Agency’s current actions include leading and co-ordinating the National Drought Group, which brings together a wide range of stakeholders responsible for water and for those who need the water. This partnership includes water companies, the Government and non-governmental organisations, including the National Farmers Union, environmental groups and business groups. The Environment Agency also collates and monitors evidence of impacts of dry weather on chalk streams and actions undertaken to protect the streams.

If required, the Environment Agency will implement abstraction restrictions to protect the environment. For example, as we have heard, the Environment Agency is likely to implement restrictions in a number of places, including the River Stour catchment in Essex, which is a chalk stream. That will affect 16 abstraction licences, and there will be a reduction of 25% to their weekly abstraction limit. The Environment Agency is discussing these matters with individual abstraction licence holders in other parts of the country, particularly Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Herefordshire.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to the designation of sites. The Government have designated 11 high priority chalk rivers as sites of special scientific interest to protect them from the pressures they are under and to begin work to restore them. Each of those 11 designated chalk rivers that has been assessed to be in an unfavourable condition has a river restoration plan. For the record, those rivers are the Kennet, the Nar, the Test, the Frome, the Hull headwaters, the Lambourn, the Itchen, the Wensum, the Bere streams, the Moors rivers system and the Avon system. By implementing these action plans, we have enhanced more than 40 miles of priority chalk river habitat through 60 projects since 2011.

Chalk rivers are protected from harmful effluent discharges by a rigorous permitting process. When an operator seeks to discharge effluent, they must first get a licence from the Environment Agency. In consultation with Natural England, civil society and the public, the agency will then grant the permit to discharge into a priority chalk stream only if the environmental risk is low. I am conscious of the example that was used earlier, and I will draw it to the attention of the Environment Agency so that it can investigate further the concerns about discharges.

Natural England has been delivering catchment-sensitive farming, offering a combination of grants and advice to help to reduce pollution from farms within priority catchments, including chalk streams, across the country. There is clear evidence that this advice has led to improvements in water quality and a reduction in serious water pollution incidents, and ecological communities have responded positively to the reductions in sediment pressure. However, it is important to stress that all water companies also have a significant role to play in protecting the environment. A large proportion of companies look after the chalk aquifer, which is the major aquifer of southern and eastern England. These companies include Thames, Affinity, Southern and Anglian. Apparently, South East is also included, as is Yorkshire, for some reason. This just goes to show how far the power of Yorkshire stretches, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton will know.

There are good examples of partnership work in action. The Environment Agency’s work with Affinity Water to reduce abstractions at 11 pumping stations across seven chalk streams means that 70 million litres of water a day will be kept in the environment by 2025, and they have reduced abstraction from the River Mimram and the River Beane by over 40%. In the north London and Hertfordshire area alone, the Environment Agency is working to improve more than 150 miles of chalk streams by 2025. The agency also hopes to remove or bypass 50 weirs or other structures to improve fish passage and habitats in the north London area.