I’m delighted to report that the Environment Agency has responded to several of the recommendations in the CaBA chalk stream strategy with the publication of a new report titled “Hydrological approaches to assessing sustainable abstraction in chalk streams“. This is a timely report given we are in the midst of the national framework water resources consultation as it will contribute to an informed and democratic dialogue between all stakeholders.
Our CaBA strategy made the observations that a) the public-facing assessments of abstraction in chalk streams were simply binary and did not communicate the scale or spatial distribution of the impacts and b) that the methodologies for assessment were somewhat complex and not easily available to citizen scientists and chalk stream advocates. We argued that knowledge-sharing and an open approach were vital to a fully informed debate in a time when some big decisions were being made with regard to water resources planning.
On behalf of the CaBA group and with the support of Defra we commissioned an independent survey of abstraction as a % of recharge (A%R), which we summarised in the strategy and published fully a few weeks ago. That methodology is one of five summarised in the new EA report. In addition the EA has unpacked the Environmental Flow Indicator (EFI) assessment methodology and the National Framework “scenarios”. Most interestingly the EA has also added details on a groundwater balance test (very similar to abstraction as a % of recharge) and also an approach that looks at the EFI flow at the perennial head of the chalk stream, called point x (which we have argued would be achieved most of the time by A10%R). Both of these address one of the weaknesses of assessing EFI flow at assessment points further down the valley where sewage discharges can mask the impacts of abstraction higher up the catchment: the upper Lea (pictured top left!) is a very good example of where this occurs.
The report doesn’t say what % of reduction in the groundwater balance / level is acceptable (is it close to our suggestion of A10%R?) but it’s worth noting that the reductions in abstraction signalled by both the groundwater balance test and A%R are actually smaller than those signalled by EFI, for example. Of course the A%R report surveyed only 55 catchments, but in addition I suspect the figures are lower because EF includes surface-water abstractions which generally occur much further down the catchments, and are controllable through protective measures such as “hands-off” flows (unlike groundwater abstraction), and so arguably are of a lesser order of ecological impact.
My personal opinion, but shared also by John Lawson who wrote the A%R report, is that pragmatism and practicality need to inform the debate: in fact I have said that to achieve anything of real significance we need water companies to be more idealistic and conservation NGOs and stakeholders to be more pragmatic. We’ll make the ecology of our streams better one quotidian action at a time. In which case, as well as setting out long-term ambitions (no more than 10% abstraction on all chalk streams) we must have an eye on what we can deliver and when and ideally what we can deliver in short order, so that we can make progress and allow success to beget success.
Starting with the ambitions enshrined in the A10%R concept and applying that on a regional scale across multiple pressured catchments (for example the Colne and Lea) would be a fine place to start and would demonstrate the art of the possible. If we can fix those chalk streams, we can fix all chalk streams!
I once made a film about searching for a wild trout in London: I found one in the very lower reaches of the Chess, inside the M25, if not actually greater London. If I looked again now, I know I’d find them in the Wandle. Nature is there, waiting for us to to give it a chance.
This new EA report is a great contribution to the actions we will need to take to make that happen.