Why is my river still dry?

Professor Ian Barker is Managing Director, Water Policy International and offers a personal perspective on why our chalk streams are suffering so badly, why ‘the system’ isn’t geared to their quick recovery and what you might do to help.

Why is my river in such a poor state?

A recurring theme in the webinars hosted by the Chalk Aquifer Alliance is that water regulation isn’t  working. It’s failing to prevent pollution or to restore flow to dried-up stream beds in the Chilterns, or the Chalk Downlands, or the Yorkshire Wolds. Inevitably, the discussion looks to apportion blame  – to Defra, the water companies, Ofwat or the Environment Agency. Or all of them.  

The blame game

It’s easy to blame what can seem like amorphous/greedy/bureaucratic/uncaring (insert your adjective  of choice) organisations, but what does seem to be agreed on is that the staff ‘on the ground’ from the EA or water company do care about the problems, and are doing their best to resolve them. And  although it might not always seem like it, that commitment does, in my experience, generally extend  all the way to the top of each organisation. So if you are prepared to accept that that’s the case (or  even if you’re not), let’s examine why more doesn’t appear to be happening, faster. 

Understanding ‘the system’

The answer lies with ‘the system’. Otherwise known as the chain that stretches from government  policy, through to legislation, regulatory priorities, operational processes and the available funding  and resources. Each link in that sequence can make or break whether there is the level of attention  and resources to any particular problem. I’ll focus here on the challenge of excessive and  unsustainable abstraction; diffuse pollution, sewer overflows, channel restoration and everything else  would turn this note into War and Peace

The Environment Agency assesses the water resources in each catchment using its CAMS process:  Catchment Abstraction Management Strategies. These set out the available resource, and what  proportion is required to be left in the river to support a flourishing ecology (assuming that the water  quality and river morphology also supported it). CAMS do not just protect a minimum flow, which  was the basis of many historic approaches to flow controls, and is still popular internationally. Instead,  CAMS seek to protect a variable flow regime, mirroring the natural fluctuations through the seasons.  

Not all rivers are equal

The methodology also recognises that not all rivers are equal. Indeed, that along the length of a single  river there will also be differences. In summary, the more sensitive the expected ecology of the river  would be to changes in flow and level, the greater the level of protection needed. So the headwaters  of a Pennine stream, or of a Chalk river, would have a more stringent control than the same river near  the estuary where the channel is deep and U-shaped, with a different assemblage of fish and  invertebrates. Overlain onto this might be any specific requirements, such as the need to protect flows at certain times of the year to encourage salmonid migration.  

The assessment takes account of abstractions and discharges along the length of the river; in other  words, the debits and credits either side of the target balance. Where actual or licensed abstractions  are taking the actual flows below the target indicator flow then action will be needed to restore the  balance. In extreme cases, where groundwater abstractions from boreholes have dried up the  springheads, the flow pattern will be very severely disrupted. Where a river catchment, or specific  river reach is failing to reach its target, it will be put on the list for remediation according to the severity  of the impact. This is the case for many Chalk streams – and that’s where the effect of the chain from  policy to practice is felt, in terms of whether, and when, action is taken. 

Understanding the process

The process can seem steeped in regulatory fog, but it’s essential to understand it. In essence it goes  something like this (very simplified) sequence: 

∙ The greatest proportion of abstraction which is damaging Chalk streams is for public water supply. Although in some locations other sectors – spray irrigation in particular – can be significant, public supply is generally dominant. Which is why remedial action requires a  planetary conjunction between the EA, Ofwat and the water company. 

∙ Water companies will not take action – on almost anything (they do make relatively small  discretionary payments to ‘good causes’) – unless it is funded in price limits set by  Ofwat. These are the output from Ofwat’s quinquennial review (the “Periodic Review”) of  water companies’ business plans which sets the charges to customers for the following five  years. 

∙ Ofwat’s most recent review (“PR19”) resulted in a number of companies appealing, on the  grounds that they would not have sufficient revenue to fund essential investment. Most  companies, however, gritted their teeth and accepted the result. But all would argue that  finances will be tight over the next five years 

∙ Environmental improvements are set by the EA in WINEP – the Water Industry National  Environment Programme – which sets out what the companies must do, where and by when,  such as to meet regulatory standards on wastewater discharges, or to reduce damaging  abstractions 

∙ However, WINEP has to follow rules set out in WISER (Water Industry Strategic Environmental  Requirements): companies must meet statutory obligations, such as to meet the  requirements of EU Directives such as Habitats, Bathing Waters or Urban Wastewater  Treatment Directive. Non-statutory improvements are usually subject to an assessment to  show that there is customer support and that the solution is best value. Because most chalk  streams are not designated, they fall into the non-statutory category, and demonstrating what  is essentially a cost-benefit can be very difficult. By contrast, on rivers such as the Hampshire  Avon and Itchen their statutory designations means that improvements simply have to be the  most cost-effective and sustainable solution – but that a solution must (almost always) be  found. WINEP is under review to make it more outcome-focused, which will be consulted on  in summer 2021 

∙ However, WISER states that “You must comply with your abstraction licences and prevent  damage to the environment. Your abstractions should support the achievement of  environmental objectives and measures set out in the RBMP (the Water Framework Directive  River Basin Management Plan, which sets out the status of each basin, and the actions  required for it to achieve Good Status). Where required you should put solutions in place to  resolve existing environmental problems caused by abstraction and also to prevent  deterioration in the condition of the environment. It is important that you show leadership  on the issue of environmental flows by working with stakeholders and other abstractors to  improve understanding. We also ask you to strongly consider including appropriate  abstraction sites in Ofwat’s Abstraction Incentive Mechanism (AIM) where reductions in  abstraction at low flows would benefit the environment.”  

∙ The Regional water resource planning groups, such as WRE and WRSE, are promoting the need  for water companies’ strategic planning for secure water resources to also include the  volumes required to end unsustainable abstraction. This strategic approach will help to  overcome the piecemeal, inefficient and adversarial process we’ve seen so far, and has the  potential to be game changing. It will be effectively complete by 2023, so there is a limited  window to ensure that the problems are understood, and mitigation measures included 

∙ In the meantime, despite what everyone would like to see, it is impossible for a company to  cease or reduce a damaging abstraction unless they have an alternative source of supply. And  at present, those source options don’t exist on the scale needed to solve the problems. The  regional planning groups, and RAPID, are aiming to accelerate what would otherwise be a  protracted process – but it will still take years before substantial resources can come on  stream. 

∙ The EA’s powers are limited in this area. Although it can revoke damaging abstraction  licences, and has done so, the Secretary of State would not allow it to do so if that left a water company’s customers without water. So it has to work with the companies to develop a case  for revocation, support that action in WINEP, discuss with Ofwat over whether they will agree  funding (for non-statutory sites), and agree realistic timescales. Ofwat will scrutinise the  proposed costs and trim them if it feels they are too high, so that companies cannot exploit  the process but must deliver efficiently. But once a scheme enters a company’s Business Plan  agreed with Ofwat then they are required to deliver within the agreed timescale. Where the  alternative solution is for a strategic water resource that timescale could extend into the  2030’s. 

Can we make a difference?

This reality is a depressing prospect, but it doesn’t mean that everyone should just sit back and wait.  There’s a lot that members of the Chalk Aquifer Alliance can do which will make a real difference to  the restoration of Chalk streams.  

I’ve concentrated on what it will take to reduce abstraction. But for any river, it doesn’t matter how  much flow it has if the water quality is poor, or if it is blocked by weirs or constrained within a  trapezoidal concrete channel or a culvert – it will never support the fish, bugs and plants that it should.  Working in partnerships to improve the channel morphology, and returning the watercourse to a more  natural shape and gradient, can work wonders for wildlife. And persuading landowners and local  authorities to tackle the scourge of diffuse pollution runoff from fields, roads and paved areas can  yield multiple benefits.  

All of these measures will help to ensure that when a more natural flow regime is restored the river  will stand a greater chance of reaching its full potential. It will also help to ensure that it is more  resilient to the impact of climate change, which will alter – in ways that we don’t yet understand – what species are able to live and flourish in Chalk streams. 

Read and respond

In addition, the regulatory landscape is changing. Defra, Ofwat, the Environment Agency and water  companies will be consulting on a wide range of issues over the next couple of years, including what  should be the priorities for investment and approach to regulation over coming decades. Although  these documents can be a challenging read, it’s important to respond to them. 

Collaborate and cooperate

And there’s more that can be done now to help ensure that the Chalk streams are given their best  chance of survival: 

∙ Support the work of the regional water resource planning groups (Water Resources East and  Water Resources South East), either directly or by working with those organisations that have  a seat at the table, to help them to establish the nature of the problem to be solved, and  potential solutions. For example, the Cam Valley Forum is working with WRE, and they have  jointly submitted (with Cambridge Water) a letter to Rebecca Pow, the Defra Minister 

∙ Provide evidence of the deterioration in ecology and flow, to help confirm the need for  action. Citizen science and historic records are valuable material, and can be persuasive  ∙ Build up the numbers of customers calling for their water company to take action – this will  help to ensure that ‘their’ stream is included in the improvements within the regional planning  groups’ work and water companies’ water resource management plans. Defra and regulators  wrote to all the companies in August last year asking them to up their game on Chalk streams 

∙ Collaboration is key – with rivers trusts, local authorities, landowners, water companies and  regulators. There have been some great examples of collaborative working described by CAA  members in the webinars, and it’s telling that it’s generally on those rivers where most  progress is being made 

∙ Work with others to improve water quality and channel morphology, remove barriers and aim  to prevent further deterioration. The resources available to the EA have reduced significantly over the past 10 years, so it doesn’t have the cash or manpower to do what it would wish to. I  organised a two day conference last November at which Emma Howard Boyd, the EA Chair, said that “the environment is not where we want it to be… regulation needs to be  accompanied by a threat for non-compliance: fines are disproportionately small, and need to  reflect the operating turnover of the water company”. Supporting the need for the  environmental watchdog to have bigger teeth, and to be fed (by a greater allocation of grant in-aid in spending reviews, and support for increases in charges for abstractions and  discharges) will help it to do the job we need it to 

∙ Help the water companies to reduce their abstraction by promoting water efficiency and  demand management. Advocate the uptake of water meters: metered households use less  water (I hope that every CAA member has a water meter, and knows how much they are  using?) and support the focus on the higher than average water users in companies like  Affinity. Water companies have pledged to reduce leakage, but it’s also important that  customers do their bit. The Waterwise website has some great information to help you  understand the art of the possible 

∙ Defra has postponed (again) a decision on water efficiency labelling of appliances, improved  building standards, and targets for consumption; lobby for more and faster action, and make  sure that you respond to all consultations, so that the trend of rising consumption is reversed 

∙ The government’s 25 Year Environment Plan contains targets for reducing damaging  abstraction. The Environment Bill makes provision for these potentially to become statutory  targets; the government will consult on its proposals for long-term targets, which will be set  by October 2022.  

Apologies for the length of this note, and for teaching you to suck eggs (if that’s the case). But I hope it’s helpful. I cannot pretend to speak for Defra, the EA or Ofwat, or the water companies: this is my  personal, abridged perspective of where we are and what happens in water regulation. There are  many nuances to this very complex process, so the organisations referred to might present it  differently. 

Professor Ian Barker 

Managing Director, Water Policy International 

January 2021 

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