My five minutes in Westminster: the WRSE parliamentary launch

I was very pleased (with thanks to Trevor Bishop, WRSE director) to be given five minutes this morning to talk about Chalk Streams First as part of the parliamentary launch of the WRSE draft regional plan.

Trevor opened the speaking with an encouraging summary of how this plan could be a real game changer in terms of making environment stewardship integral to a more resilient and sustainable water resource infrastructure. As I say below, this is our best chance ever, to build a better system that is fairer to the natural world. And to restore our over-abstracted chalk streams!

It was great to see Sir Charles Walker MP, The Rt Hon Phillip Dunne and Sir Oliver Heald, MP – all stalwart chalk stream supporters over many years. Many thanks to Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP for hosting, on behalf of WRSE.

You can read the plan and give feedback HERE. Please do take the time to take a look and especially to give feedback ref the importance of abstraction reduction for chalk streams.

There will be a webinar on the 22nd Nov at 1330 to 1500. Register to attend HERE

My five minutes worth were as follows:

“As we plan for the future it’s important to remember the past: the miracle of running water and flushing loos in every home, on the one hand, and on the other the true cost that miracle imposed on the natural world.

In a cupboard in the High Wycombe public library there is a Sanitary Inspector’s report from the mid-19th C on the conditions in which the chair-factory workers of the town were living. Their water came from the stream, over which hung latrines, or from wells in the floodplain, the wells sometimes only a few yards from garden-shed loos, also holes in the ground, shared by forty or fifty people. 

Most people were ill more or less all the time: they called it low fever, and thought it came from the awful smell, but it was cholera and it came from the dirty water. The report recommended piped water and a sewage system, but the councillors were concerned about the cost and it took decades to materialise. In fact, the slums themselves lasted until the 1950s when they were finally cleared and the occupants rehoused in airy, council houses on the hills above the town. 

In those post-war years the resource of abundant, clean water in the chalk hills under those lofty new houses was nothing short of a miracle. It enabled the re-housing of Londoners bombed out by the Blitz into smart new towns and garden-cities in the Home Counties.

It enabled – and it subsidised – an amazing growth in prosperity and health. Hardly surprising that groundwater abstraction from the chalk aquifer grew almost exponentially in those post-War decades, climbing to a peak in the mid-1980s where in many of the chalk valleys around London over half the rain that fell from the sky to fill the aquifers was taken for public water supply. In dry years an average of half the rain, became all of the rain. 

And although the water was free to us, there was a bill: the natural world picked it up. Those lovely chalk streams – a freshwater marvel almost unique to southern and eastern England – ran dry.

For forty years we have wrestled with how to resolve this dilemma: the convenience and low cost of water from the chalk aquifers and versus the ecological impact of drying and dry chalk streams. Round and round we go, sometimes denying the problem, endlessly measuring the problem, but never quite fixing the problem.

Now, through this regional planning process we have the best chance we’ve ever had, and may ever have, of achieving a better balance between the needs of society and those of the natural world.

The potential component of the plan that I’m especially passionate about consists of realigning the way we take water by creating the sort of system we should have built in the first place, if only we’d known.

Instead of taking water from the ground in the headwaters of these lovely chalk streams, we should take it much further downstream, after it has flowed down the rivers and nature has had first use: hence the name of our proposal, Chalk Streams First.

Chalk Streams First is supported by all the major environmental charities – the Rivers Trust, Wild Trout Trust, Angling Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, Wild Fish and WWF – as well as the local environmental groups in the Chilterns and Hertfordshire chalk hills, where the opportunity is ripe for the taking.

Chalk Streams First is a proposal that greatly reduces abstraction pressure without losing the water to public supply: much of the water left in the ground becomes surface flow which can be taken further down the river, placed into storage reservoirs and then used to supply all the places formerly supplied by the groundwater abstraction. 

There are potential variations on the theme too: inter-regional water transfers like the Grand Union Canal, or Severn to Thames, could bring water into the upstream catchments, with the recovered flow going on to London. 

Groundwater abstraction in the headwaters can be replaced by groundwater abstraction further downstream where there would be less ecological impact. 

In places where there is no reservoir, or to get us through 18-month droughts like the one we have just experienced, we could use emergency groundwater schemes and use the chalk streams to deliver the abstracted water to public supply off-takes.

The point is, we can do it: we can have flowing chalk streams and resilient public water supplies.  It just requires political will and engineering ingenuity. And while it needn’t cost the Earth, it might just save our piece of it. Please support Chalk Streams First and help us to make it happen … soon.

Thank you.”

Sir Charles Walker, Trevor Bishop and yours truly at the parliamentary launch of WRSE’s draft regional plan.

One thought on “My five minutes in Westminster: the WRSE parliamentary launch

  1. Dear Charles, Thanks for this update. Some of the Friend of the Ems have been following the Consultation and indeed contributed. I forwarded the reply ( to your google mail account) to my question about the input/output volumes from the Thicket Reservoir with the most recent updated data from the River Ems loggers. I am interested to know your views on the current situation and my thoughts below. I am aware that Chalk Stream First is on the WRSE Environmental Advisory Group. I think Trevor Bishop and Joel Hufford have done a great job so far. The quality of the information they have produced is excellent. My concerns started when I learned WRSE were an alliance of the six South East Water Companies. Even with Ofwat (not withstanding plenty of regulatory deficiencies on record) oversight it seems to be a case of the fox in charge of the hen house! Ofwat indicate that they have relied on the Environment Agency and Natural England for guidance on the environmental aspects of the the Thicket Reservoir project. Looking at their comment provided under the Environmental Information Regulations it is limited, incomplete and redacted! It is confined to the Reservoirs local impact and that of the associated connections. There was nothing visible about the possible impact of reduced flow to Chichester/Langstone Harbours from increased harvesting from the Havant/Bedhampton springs and loss of treated flow from Budds Farm if the recycled water element of the project is ultimately approved. Nor did it demonstrate any awareness of the flagship status of the River Ems, its current plight and the potential opportunity ( as indicated in the WRSE plan) to move to sustainable abstraction. Looking at the below it looks like the search is on for more evidence to justify this? Surely we are past this point? It was only a week ago that we agreed that the time for ‘measuring’ was over! Having spent two years of intense contact with a water company and the EA this is typical of the drag applied which merely thwarts real and long overdue action to remedy recognised environmental vandalism.

    It would be really wonderful if my concerns were I’ll founded. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for all you unstinting efforts as ever. Kind regards, Sandy



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