The “Green Elephant in the room” is really a straw man in the room

Picture above: The “River” Beane. For much of the time it is not imaginarily dry. It is actually dry.

Just before Christmas I published a long post that few people will have chewed through: my responses to some of the points Rob Soley, technical director at WSP, made in a webinar about abstraction reductions and his view that it is unwise for the UK to “abandon” groundwater abstraction.

Rob has followed up that webinar with a feature in CIWEM magazine entitled “Enormous Cuts to Groundwater Abstraction in England are Unwise”. Rob is an eminent hydrogeologist. His arguments will be taken seriously. Some of what he says I fully agree with, certainly the need to prioritise abstraction reductions so that we get the best ecologic outcomes for the investments.

But as with the webinar, we have to unpick the reasonable arguments from parts that are hyperbolic and alarmist, arguing against the most extreme interpretations of the new ideas. No one is about to turn all these pumps off. There is a reasonable debate now – and not before time – about how to realign water resources and ease the pressure on the environment. As is the nature of debate, there are various points of view. We need to find common ground. Common ground is not the status quo.

The water industry and its army of hydrogeologists must accept that groundwater abstraction has caused and is continuing to cause significant ecological damage to precious habitats in chalk streams around London, into Kent, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire. This are where the environmental pressures are at their apex and they are massive.

The NGOs, and river groups need to accept that the public needs water, Water Cos have to supply it, that it has to come from somewhere and that therefore we do need to engage in a pragmatic discussion about compromise and priority.

Rob’s argument is essentially that through a laudable but deluded greenwashing project we are in danger of losing sight of a formerly more rounded definition of “sustainable” water resources, which should include a consideration of fact that we currently enjoy relatively inexpensive and clean chalk groundwater with tolerable ecological impact, versus the costs to society of developing alternative sources (should we do that), the carbon impact of transporting water, and the disappointing ecological outcomes that are likely to follow all that (unnecessary) investment. He characterises this project as the green elephant in the room.

This is a somewhat polarised way of seeing things and I suggest that the problem at the heart of this polarisation is the sheer size of the abstraction reductions which have been put to the regional groups without much attempt, thus far, to really distinguish between them in terms of priority. The deficits were calculated using the EA’s EFI methodology, and applied to every single water-body, without distinguishing between whether the water-body was a vulnerable, headwater chalk stream, or the navigated, impounded and discharge-supported lower reaches of a large, urban river.

This is ringing alarm bells for water companies and their consultants. But Rob is taking arms against a straw man.

At least Chalk Streams First is not arguing for the scale of abstraction reduction Rob takes issue with. But we are arguing for the restoration of flows to streams like the Ivel, Ver, Chess, Beane, Misbourne, Rib, Darent, etc. In our submissions to WRSE and WRE we have argued for a transparent prioritisation process. And indeed the EA has taken note of this and some work is being done in the area.

That work needs to be made urgent now. Otherwise the debate will entrench and become this all or nothing dichotomy in which I am certain the environment will lose out. After all money trumps ecology every single time and if the bill can be characterised as foolhardy and massive, it won’t get paid.

One example: the total deficits for the whole Colne system down to the Thames amount to 270Ml/d. That’s a lot of water. Two Abingdon reservoirs of deployable output. The total deficits on the chalk stream tributaries, however, amount to about 80 Ml/d. Factoring in a reasonable expectation of 50% flow recovery (see my previous post) at low flows, that leaves a net deficit of 40 Ml/d. This can be cheaply provided via the Grand Union Canal transfer.

If you add to this the idea of a groundwater insurance scheme, the net deployable output to London actually goes up.

The lower Colne, which makes up the bulk of that enormous 270 Ml/d deficit, is highly modified, embedded in a stable water-table, much supported by discharges and would benefit from the all the chalk stream flow recovery anyway.

There are intelligent ways to do this, in other words. Ways that are not all or nothing, but consist of pragmatic and measured improvements that are well worth paying for.

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