England's rare and fragile chalk streams are in such a stressed state that wate restrictions should urgently be put in place to protect them, according to a group of 12 rivers and wildlife organisations.
The group, which includes the Angling Trust, the Wild Trout Trust, Chilterns Chalk Streams Project and the Rivers and Wildlife Trusts, says that river levels and groundwater supplies are now so depleted that the freshwater ecosystems are “quite simply dying from a lack of water”.
England has 85% of the world’s chalk streams, with most of these in the south-east, but three consecutive dry years have taken their toll, according to the group, which is calling for immediate action to “avert fish kills and longer term environmental damage”.
The Environment Agency’s latest data shows many rivers running below normal flows, with the chalk streams such as the Lea, Chess, Wandle, Hogsmill, Darent and Cray suffering particularly dry conditions.
In addition to a hosepipe ban, the group wants the government to step up abstraction reform, drive demand reduction through the introduction of compulsory water metering, and to compel water companies to plan better for drought, including expediting a large new reservoir in the south-east of England.
The group has written to Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan setting out their demands, and requested that chalk streams be given their own classification targets within the Water Framework Directive to give the rivers an increased level of protection.
They are also calling for a “reassessment of the drought classification criteria to ensure action can be taken and drought declared, not only when there is a direct threat to supply, but to include the environmental aspects of chalk streams and rivers that must be protected”.
Former musician and Angling Trust ambassador Feargal Sharkey - who is also a keen fly fisherman and river advocate - said that “decades of over abstraction coupled with regulatory inertia” and “the 2019 drought” has “finally tipped our chalk streams over the edge”.
“The fields of southern England are becoming littered with the decaying remnants of our globally unique, once pristine, precious river ecosystems - our chalk streams. It is now time for the government to act, it is now time for government to show leadership, it is now time to let our rivers flow again,” said Sharkey.
Paul Jennings, chairman of the River Chess Association, said the “failure of successive governments to invest in reservoir storage and bear down on both demand and wasted water means that the gap between supplying water to customers and protecting the environment has become a yawning chasm”.
Earlier this week, the National Drought Group, which includes the Environment Agency, government departments, water companies and environmental groups, said continued dry weather conditions are putting “particular pressure on the environment and agriculture“ and that it would be “some time before conditions can return to normal”.
The drought group is expecting more applications for drought orders, which allow water companies to take more water than usual from rivers or boreholes, and “temporary flexible abstraction” measures which allow “rapid access to water for abstractors within environmental limits”.