Jargon busting the Chalk Streams First letters:

I’ve recieved a friendly moan from an old friend that our letters to Water Resources South East (WRSE) and Affinity Water are unintelligible and therefore difficult to support.

As someone who is passionate about using plain English and trying to write simple, accessible prose I feel a bit embarrassed to receive this fair complaint. The submissions were to specialist audiences at WRSE and Affinity and they will be more than familiar with all the contents. But the average chalk stream fan won’t be. So, while I don’t intend to change the letters, a bit more content and explanation may well help you to endorse them.

Water Resources South East (WRSE) is one of several regional groups tasked by Ofwat (the government appointed watchdog of the water industry) with developing plans to build resilience of supply (making sure we don’t run out of water) and environmental protection into our national water-resources infrastructure (the abstractions and pipelines and reservoirs that bring water to your tap) over the next 50+ years.

This is the best opportunity we’ve ever had to ease pressure on chalk stream abstraction.

WRSE has developed a draft regional plan which is out for consultation with the general public: this is where you get a say in the priorities and thinking behind the plan. The deadline for responding to this consultation is the 20th February. LINK HERE.

In addition there are the water company WRMPs (water resource management plans) which deal with the application of the WRSE work in each given water company area. Again, the deadline for responding to the Affinity Water WRMP is the 20th February. LINK HERE.

I won’t deal with everything in these plans, but specific to chalk streams and especially Chalk Streams First (CSF being a proposal to reduce groundwater abstraction in the chalk stream tributaries of the Colne and Lea and take the water from the lower river instead after it has flowed down the chalk streams) the following should help you understand what we have said:

Prioritisation (where abstraction reductions will happen)

The WRSE plan has taken on board our ideas of prioritising abstraction reduction in the chalk stream tributaries. This is good news and we support it.

However, the WRSE “environmental deficits”(ie. the amount of water we should cease taking from the environment) in the most ambitious versions of the planning, are massive: so large it is difficult to envisage where all the replacement water will come from. These deficits have been arrived at through the application of Environment Agency flow targets on every single water body without, thus far, any published detail to draw distinctions between places where the ecological need is urgent and places where it isn’t.

Given that all water comes from the environment somewhere, the problem with this lack of prioritisation is that we could easily end up creating environmental problems in one place whilst trying to fix them in another, or we could end up not fixing them in a place of great ecological importance by protecting a place of lesser ecological importance.

We think this prioritisation has been slow to develop because it is a very difficult decision-making process. It must be done, however, or we will not achieve value for money, or even the right outcomes, in our attempts to restore and protect the environment.

Demand reduction (each of using less water)

Using less water is a really obvious way to ease pressure on the environment. Currently we use at least 33% more per head than we should: 150 litres per person per day versus a target of 100 – 110 litres per person per day. It’s easy to use too much water when you have no idea how much you are using: you just get complacent. On the other hand, incentivising people to use less water is very tricky: you rely on the full time application of a conscientious approach, which is tough to keep up.

Evidentially, by far the best way to get people to use less water is to fit a smart meter to the house: if people can have sight of how much they are using and how much it is costing them, and how much they could save by using less, they will use less. Simple as.

The government has now allowed for the designation of any chalk stream area as “water stressed”: this means water companies can roll-out compulsory smart metering.

We think they should get on with it as fast as possible.

New sources (finding new water)

The WRSE region is especially stressed because there are just too many people versus too few raindrops in south east England.

Whilst smart meters and leak reduction can help address a large chunk of the deficits, the results from both of these programmes are uncertain.

To ease pressure on the environment and address these flow deficits (as above) we also need to find new water from somewhere, ideally without creating another environmental problem in that other place.

Therefore, we believe the best and most certain way to ease the burden on the chalk streams in the WRSE region is to transfer new water into the region. And the best way to do this without creating a flow problem somewhere else is to transfer water that is “going spare”, so to speak.

GUC (Grand Union Canal)

The most obvious and massive source of water that is going spare is the 400 Ml/d (millions of litres per day) that comes from the Minworth sewage works outside Birmingham. Water that currently swells the flows of the Tame well beyond anything that would have flowed down it naturally, because this water ultimately comes from Wales (through Birmingham), where it rains a lot more than in the south east (and where there are fewer people).

There is also an easy way to get some of that water in to our region, via the Grand Union canal, which for Phase 1 (50 Ml/d by 2030) requires only a modest amount of extra work. This is a no-brainer. Everyone agrees it is. And so we support this transfer fully.

We would also like to see Phase 2 brought forward, so that there is less reliance on the uncertain leak and demand reductions. Not that these aren’t important measures, but they are at best, uncertain.

T2AT (Thames to Affinity Transfer)

Another component of these water transfer schemes that could help ease the burden for chalk streams is a pipeline called the Thames to Affinity Transfer, T2AT (aka Supply 2050). This pipeline would allow any recovered flow that comes from a result of dialling down chalk stream abstraction to be captured in the lower catchments and used to supply the places formerly supplied by groundwater abstraction.

Supply 2050 was once called Supply 2040. When we launched the Chalk Streams First idea we asked for it to be brought forward and called Supply 2030. So, moving it back is the WRONG DIRECTION OF TRAVEL and threatens to delay the recovery of the chalk streams by decades.

Therefore we have objected to this and asked for the Thames to Affinity Transfer to be brought forward.

The delay appears to be based on an Affinity Water estimate that the flow recovery from the chalk stream abstraction reduction (how much of the water you leave in the ground which comes back as surface flow) will be only 17% at low flows and during droughts. Therefore, they appear to be saying that we need a large SRO “strategic resource option” like Abingdon reservoir, or the Severn to Thames transfer, to underwrite the abstraction reductions.

Thames to Affinity transfer, therefore, is currently linked to the construction of Abingdon / Severn to Thames.

Chalk Streams First has no problem with either of these schemes, but strongly objects to the idea of linking chalk stream abstraction reduction to them, as it will delay everything.

We don’t agree with the overly precautionary 17% flow recovery estimate. Our own research suggests the flow recovery will be much more like 50%, as it was during the average flow percentiles that existed for the duration of the two worst droughts in the past 100 years (1921 and 1933/34) (these drought are used as benchmarks for planning).

That’s why we have asked for T2AT to be brought forward.

Groundwater Insurance Scheme

Although we don’t agree with the 17% figure, we do accept that there is uncertainty. No one knows for sure how much flow comes back at given times. The best way to insure against this uncertainty is a groundwater insurance scheme.

This is a tried and tested idea: there is one in existence called the West Berkshire Groundwater Scheme. It is used very occasionally (designed for use every 25 years or so) to pump water from the deep storage of the chalk aquifers of Berkshire into streams like the Pang, where it flows down to the Thames and feeds the London reservoirs during droughts, when they are running out of water. It adds 90 Ml/d to London’s supplies. That’s a lot.

But it is a counter-intuitive idea because it involves abstracting from the chalk in a drought!


For reasons that I have tried to explain HERE that actually doesn’t take water from the flow at the time, but instead creates a debt to future flows. This is because there is a time-lag between the abstraction and the impact. By the time the impact hits the winter flows would aid recovery.

Besides, you use the chalk streams to deliver the water.

So, the net impact is actually enhanced flows during the drought and lower flows than natural the following year. However, even through the flows would be lower the following year, they would still be much higher than if we carried on with the current abstraction regimes.

In other words the scheme allows you to dial down abstraction to a minimum most of the time, knowing that you have an insurance fall-back to help water supplies in a drought.

Its a total no-brainer in our opinion and we have asked for an urgent investigation into the viability of the scheme in the Colne and Lea catchments if it means we can get on with dialling down groundwater abstraction to the minimum level as soon as possible.

What does rheophilic mean?

rheo = flow / philic = loving.

Salmon, trout, ranunculus, blue-winged olives etc. are all rheophilic. Natural chalk streams have rheophilic ecologies.

But George Orwell would have always written flow-loving in the first place!

I hope all the above helps. Any more questions … just ask!

One thought on “Jargon busting the Chalk Streams First letters:

  1. Thanks Charles. Whilst I didn’t have any problems with your original response this is a wonderful summary and will be shared. The mass of information available has proved difficult for many to digest and locally we have realised that our ability to inform and carry a large body of local inhabitants with us in saving the River Ems has proved of limited success. Well done.


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