Launching the CaBA chalk stream restoration strategy

My speech given at the launch of the CaBA chalk stream restoration strategy this morning, 15th October, 2021

I must start by saying thank you to all of you for coming along today to launch our chalk stream restoration strategy. We, the Chalk Stream Restoration Group, really appreciate your support. And of course, many of you have also been co-authors of this report. We have picked a lot of brains over the past year and processed a lot of feedback from all sorts of people. From those who are just passionate about their local streams and want to see them restored, to all sorts of experts in various fields. The quality of the feedback has been exceptional, whether it came via the online CaBA portal, or on the riverbank in August when we walked the River Nar and the River Itchen or via phone calls and emails over the past 12-months. 

So, you have all contributed to this strategy and I like to think that it has been a democratic and inclusive work. I have certainly tried my best to listen and respond to anyone who has written to me: though I also know the sheer volume of correspondence – which is testament to how much people care – has rather overwhelmed my cognitive bandwidth and organisational skills on occasion. I may not have replied. Emails have piled up somewhat. If so, I’m really sorry for that. But I did listen and I did read them all. You are all co-authors and I’d like to thank you. I really have appreciated your interest and expertise.

I also owe more targeted thanks to those who sat on the panel meetings with me over the past year, who helped go over stuff again and again until we got it right. That wasn’t always easy, I can tell you.

I was lucky enough to assemble what probably started life as a Magnificent Seven but soon became an Oceans Thirteen of experts. Though they may be too modest to want me to name them, I will. I was able to draw on the invaluable expertise of:

Chris Mainstone, senior freshwater ecologist at Natural England, 

David Sear, professor of physical geography at Southampton University, 

Kate Heppell & Geraldine Wharton, both professors of physical geography Queen Mary University, 

Steve Brooks, researcher in entomology at the Natural History Museum, 

John Lawson, independent water-engineering consultant, 

Vaughan Lewis, independent river-restoration consultant, 

Tim Sykes, chalk stream expert researching the interactions between people and chalk streams PhD at Southampton University

Carl Sayer, Professor in Geography at University College London and passionate aquatic conservationist

Jonathan Fisher, independent environmental economist, 

Alan Woods of the Cam Valley Forum

and Owen Turpin, sustainable abstraction manager at Environment Agency

And on the main CaBA panel I was fortunate enough to have the good company, can-do attitude and tireless enthusiasm of:

Sophie Broadfield and Affie Panayiotou, Defra

Anne Dacey, Environment Agency

Rose O’Neill & Charlotte Rose, Natural England

Fayza Benlamkadem & Magda Styles, Ofwat

Dave Tickner, WWF

Stuart Singleton-White, Angling Trust

Ali Morse, The Wildlife Trusts

Barry Bendall, Rivers Trust

Janina Gray, Salmon & Trout Conservation

Andy Thomas, Wild Trout Trust

Richard Aylard & Yvette de Garis, Thames Water

Jake Rigg, Affinity Water

Ian Colley, Wessex Water

James Wallace, Beaver Trust

Jake Fiennes, NFU

Numerous other Environment Agency and Natural England staff have also contributed their expertise with enthusiasm, as have representatives from the water companies covering chalk catchments. I have appreciated and relied on their knowledge and good sense and positive attitude. So, thank you.

Above all I relied on all of those things from Sarah Powell, operating as chalk stream manager at the Environment Agency. Sarah has been a pleasure to work with, to agree and to disagree with. Sarah never took it personally and was always gracious, even when I was picking away at things in a manner I suspect was really quite tiresome. She understood that I wouldn’t have been doing the job properly if I hadn’t been a bit dogged. Sarah put a hell of a lot into this report and deserves great credit, for her diplomacy, patience, pragmatism and knowledge and many, many hours of work, writing, fact-checking, proof-reading. Thanks Sarah. It’s been a real pleasure.

But Sarah is moving on as of next week, while the work of the CaBA group is just beginning. If I could take the chance to make a public plea: I very much hope that Sarah’s post will continue to exist and that we will continue to get the benefit of a full-time lead dedicated to chalk streams at the Environment Agency. It really matters.

***

Why? Because chalk streams are an exceptional type of spring-fed river distinct to England and parts of France and Denmark. Although chalk exists in other parts of the world, nowhere else do we find these clear-watered rivers we call chalk streams. In England they are distributed across an arc of chalk that runs from Dorset to Yorkshire. We are at the mid-point of the arc today, on the banks of one of Hertfordshire’s jewels, the River Mimram. 

The Mimram – such a lovely name, it kind of sounds like a chalk stream doesn’t it? – is one of only 283 English chalk streams, counted alongside dozens of small, nameless scarp-face springs and rills, altogether comprising the majority of this type of river and freshwater habitat to be found anywhere in the world. They are our equivalent of the Great Barrier Reef or the Okavango Delta: a truly special natural heritage and a responsibility. Surely, if charity starts at home, then so does conservation.

Chalk streams – in their natural condition – are home to a profusion of life. When rain falls on chalk hills most of it soaks down into the body of the rock and there undergoes a kind of alchemy, emerging from springs as cool, alkaline, mineral-rich water, equable in flow: the perfect properties to create a richly diverse eco-system. Botanically, chalk streams are the most biodiverse of all English rivers. For invertebrates, fish, birds and mammals, they offer a vast range of habitat niches. In Wessex, they are a stronghold of our chalk-stream Atlantic salmon, now known to be genetically distinct. The upper ephemeral reaches, known as winterbournes, are global hotspots for a unique range of specialist plants and invertebrates. 

But chalk streams are under immense pressure: they flow through one of the most urbanised, industrialised and populated parts of the UK. Three chalk streams flow through London and there are many more in the chalk hills that surround the capital. Further afield, though many flow through more open countryside, that countryside is busily farmed, while villages or towns are sited somewhere along most chalk rivers. All these streams are impacted in one way or another by the activities of people.

We depend on chalk streams for public water supply, and have leant heavily – in some places, very heavily – on the resources of the underground body of water that feeds these streams. And yet every litre of water we take out of the aquifers – and we take billions and billions of litres to irrigate our crops, or run our taps – is water lost to the natural environment. At least until we put it back. 

Only, by the time we put it back, the water is rarely in the state in which we found it. And generally it has bypassed long reaches of the stream. It has passed through our sewage systems, becoming rich in nutrients and other pollutants. We may treat it, we may even treat it to a very high standard in some places, but in many others we do not. Routinely, we put back into these wonderful ecosystems, water which makes them eutrophic, so that oxygen is sucked away from the river life which depends on it.

Even the water which we do not take out, which actually makes it to the underground aquifer or the stream, is unnaturally changed by human activities. Our heavily farmed landscape exerts a huge pressure on water quality, either because rain runs off the land and along roads, accumulating harmful chemicals, nutrients and sediment along the way, or because it seeps down into the ground carrying with it the chemical fertilisers which have been applied to the land. There is now so much nitrogen in our chalk aquifers that we do not know how long it will take – even if we stopped applying nitrogen as fertiliser – for the aquifers to become clean again.

Finally, we have changed the rivers themselves, modifying them heavily over the centuries. We have used them for milling, for transport, to drive multiple agricultural and industrial revolutions. 

More recently, in the post-war decades, we made one of the most drastic and permanent changes of all: we dredged them. We took out the gravel river-beds – on which almost all chalk-stream life depends – and dumped them on the banks, all in an ultimately misguided attempt to drain the landscape. The impact of this dredging is, even now, massively underestimated.

So, we have quite the job ahead of us if we are to leave our wonderful chalk streams in a better state than we found them. 

But that is the challenge which this CaBA chalk stream restoration strategy has attempted to address – how to restore good ecological health to these unique rivers and the catchments which support them, all within the context of this busy landscape, occupied by millions of people going about their lives, with multiple stakeholders and competing demands on resources.

CaBA is a space in which all those stakeholders who are involved in the management, conservation and sustainable exploitation of our chalk streams can come together and try to agree on a way to achieve that goal. It is not always a comfortable space. 

NGO’s have to be pragmatic. 

Water companies have to be idealistic.

Agriculture has to adapt and be supported to do so.

Government has to listen and then act. 

This restoration strategy is what has come out of that discussion: a strategic plan which, if followed, will allow us to become proud custodians of 283 ecologically vibrant chalk streams – streams that may once again flow with a healthy flush of clean water through meandering channels over bright gravel, full of wildlife, beside which it is a pleasure to spend time and which could and should be a credit to the stewardship of our generation.

A number of people have remarked to me on the sheer length of the strategy: 138 pages, plus appendices. They have a point. It is long. But, don’t worry, I still have my first draft which was only nine words and written on the back of an envelope. It reads, simply …

More water.

Less pollution. 

More gravel, gradient and trees.

That’s it. I wrote the strategy months ago. All the rest of those 138 pages is just an analysis of how to make those things actually happen. It’s not complicated. 

Except that it is. For two reasons.

The first is cost. More water costs money. Less pollution costs money. And more gravel, gradient and trees costs money. It all costs money.

The second reason it gets complicated derives from the first: because these things cost money, we have trouble agreeing which is the more important, which improvement will yield the greatest ecological gain, per se, but more than that, which will yield the greatest gain for the least cost. 

My thought, and I’ve been thinking about it now for over a year, is that this is where we have become stuck. Round and round we go, looking for single-cause evidence that simply doesn’t exist in the unambiguous form our economic models demand.

Of course, working cost-effectively, addressing problems in the correct order, is a perfectly reasonable way to proceed. But ascribing and proving ecological damage to one cause, in order to justify the cost of redressing that damage via addressing that one cause is a road to nowhere. 

In a given catchment the links between cause and effect are so complex that any attempt  to prove a causal link between improvements in one area (flow, say) and overall ecological improvement, is almost doomed to yield inconclusive answers. And therefore it is doomed to yield inaction.

So, what we have tried to do, above all with this strategy, is illumnate the links between the components of ecological health in order to rebalance that burden of proof, and justify making all these improvements together in a joined up and strategic way. Because that is the way to make sure the money is well spent and that is the way to bring back wildlife. We’ve got to get away from the siloed, timid, piecemeal and reach-based restorations and think on a different scale in a much more strategic and connected way. 

That is why this plan addresses all three parts of that envelope haiku in turn and all three in combination under the titles:

• water quantity (the naturalness of the flow regime)

• water quality (how clean the water is)

• physical habitat quality (the physical shape of the river, but incorporating biological factors like invasive species which can degrade habitat directly and indirectly)

We look at these elements singly because it helps to focus, but in combination too, because it is important to remember how each one either positively – or negatively – affects the others. 

Re-naturalising flow will improve river health by improving water quality (its chemistry, cleanliness and temperature) and physical habitat (volume, speed of flow). But the benefit of re-naturalising flow is greatly increased if water quality and physical habitat are improved at the same time.

Improving water quality or physical habitat will likewise enhance the health of the chalk stream although not as much as when flow is also re-naturalised, at the same time.

Therefore, the best restoration strategy for any river will address all three together: renaturalising flow and improving water quality while using landscape-scale physical-habitat improvements to consolidate the beneficial impacts of all three and thus deliver maximum ecological improvement. 

Combining all three will achieve this outcome miles more effectively than when the elements are only improved in isolation, or a bit here and a bit there while we wait for signs that what we’ve done has achieved something.

Of all recommendations we have made, the overarching one is for a form of statutory protection that will drive investment and allow us to work in the way I have just described.  Over and over, while preparing this report, it has been made clear that when it comes to the investment decisions which determine the health of our chalk streams – in reducing abstraction, or pollution or paying for habitat work – a powerful statutory driver would make all the difference. A statutory driver would allow the regulators, industry and NGOs to do what they need to do to bring our chalk streams back to ecological health, not just in a few privileged places, but right across the map.

An awful lot of the rest would flow (no pun intended) from that. 

Elsewhere we have recommended a review of cost-benefit analysis to take the brakes off investment in abstraction reductions and water treatment in chalk streams, to ensure the water company customer surveys communicate the importance of these iconic habitats to the public.

We have a sensible and pragmatic consensus agreement on what we mean by sustainable abstraction and have made a clear recommendation to water companies, government and regulators to set time-bound goals to meet this target on chalk streams, prioritising headwaters and working on a regional scale. 

This is very much the message we have sent through to the national framework for water resources planning, and I know that water resources east and south east are both engaged in very serious analysis of how to address the flow deficits in chalk streams. I also know that the numbers being discussed are genuinely convincing assessments of the degree to which our chalk streams are over abstracted.

We have recommended a review of waterbody boundaries and assessment points to ensure that methodologies for assessing flows and water quality protect all of the chalk stream reaches and especially their headwaters

We have recommended the prioritisation of investment in both abstraction reduction and water treatment from the headwaters downstream. In fact, the headwaters first principle runs loud and clear throughout this report: get things right in the headwaters and the benefits wash down – quite literally – throughout the system. In the past, cost benefit weightings have tended to favour the lower reaches. 

We have recommended the designation of all chalk-stream regions where public water supply is heavily reliant on groundwater abstraction as ‘water-stressed’, enabling greater protection in these areas, including metering. I’m happy to say, that that designation has already been delivered.

We have recommended multiple actions to drive down the nutrient loading of chalk streams to ecologically appropriate levels, including: a prioritisation of investment in all sewage-treatment works contributing to WFD nutrient failures; a reduction in the frequency and duration of storm overflows spilling to chalk streams; a suite of practical farming rules for chalk-stream catchments designed to limit pathways of diffuse agricultural pollution from landscape to river, with farm payment contingent on compliance and backed up by strict enforcement.

We have given a loud and clear endorsement to the use of new Nature Recovery Network (NRN) and Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes to deliver landscape-scale biodiversity gains in chalk catchments. 

And we have already started planning a national network of flagship full-catchment restorations where all parties in the CaBA partnership will cooperate to enact all aspects of the restoration strategy – addressing flow, pollution and physical habitat in unison.

These recommendations represent a broad consensus among the working group of the nature and scale of the threats and problems and of the necessary solutions. Where they are within the gift of the working group, progress is already underway. Otherwise, recommendations are now in a scoping phase and will be reviewed by various lead partners and planned over the following months. An implementation plan will be published in October 2022.

***

I’ve spent a lot of time in rivers trying to fix them. If that has given me any insight at all, it is that you cannot fix them with words. You cannot fix them by insisting that someone else should fix them. You cannot fix them by the day after tomorrow. You cannot fix them if you haven’t worked out what’s wrong with them. You cannot fix them without collaborating – most likely with whoever, in your opinion, damaged the river in the first place. And you cannot fix them if you are not strategic about the way you do it.

The Government’s stated ambition in the 25-year Environment Plan is to “leave the environment in a better state than we found it”. 

We can only do that for our chalk streams if our regulators, the water industry, farmers and landowners, and all quarters of the NGO conservation sector work together, break down the journey into assailable tasks, simply expressed, tasks that everyone can agree on and commit to.

Then we need to be strategic about the order in which we do things. 

Prioritise by identifying significant, realisable goals and then go ahead and realise them.

We’re not going to put all our chalk streams back into excellent ecological health by next year, or the year after or even within five years or ten.

But we could put some of them back into excellent ecological health within that time. 

And then year by year, decade by decade, if we commit to the tasks in our strategy and if we actually realise them one by one, we will be able to look back at how far we’ve come and then forward again with renewed energy for the tasks that remain.

That is how we will fix our chalk streams.

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