Fighting for the Ems

The CAA were in correspondence recently with Friends of the Ems, a group fighting for their river in East Hampshire. Like many of us, their river’s problems are rooted in abstraction but also raise questions as to how solutions to mitigate issues in one catchment can impact or may even exacerbate them in another. This is their story.

The River Ems runs for nearly 10 km from its source in the South Downs National Park to the coastal town of Emsworth where it emerges into Chichester Harbour, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Special Area of Conservation. The Ems runs principally on the East Hants/Chichester Chalk Block along with several smaller chalk streams and the River Lavant. The rivers Itchen and Test lie to the west. The Ems has always been a Cinderella watercourse and is indeed being sacrificed to permit reduced abstraction on the Itchen.

The river as it should be

Abstraction for the public water supply started in 1962 and was rapidly increased over the first five years currently averaging 20 mega litres per day. It was evident soon after abstraction started that the flow would need to be augmented if the river was to survive and this has become the norm when River flow falls below 31litres per second. The flow ceased completely in the perennial section of the River for 2 weeks in September 2020. This was due to a failure of augmentation which now maintains some River flow most Summers. Fish started to strand, predominantly brown trout, a population we were not aware had survived previous dry outs. Environment agency monitoring from the early 2000s had previously confirmed brown & sea trout, the occasional salmon, roach, stickleback and many bullheads.

The river in a typical summer

Historically the River supported four corn mills, three separate watercress growing areas, two areas of water meadow with associated channels and still/running water fisheries. It was included in the annual angling guide, ‘Where to Fish’, until 1973 by which time all the surviving interests had given up. Although the upper three kilometres were always ephemeral recent modelling confirms that the perennial headwaters have been displaced  1.5 km downstream. The River has a flow gauge which confirms a flow variation of 1000x through the year.

In modern times there has been intermittent interest in the state of the River and the overriding issue has always been the continuing over abstraction for the public water supply. A proposal for a Wildlife Corridor from the coast to the National Park clearly placed the River as the centrepiece. A number of residents & riparian owners supported by the local Wildlife Officer became involved in surveying the flora and fauna around the River to support the application for the proposed corridor. We realised very quickly that the despite nature’s considerable resilience the river and adjacent habitat was severely threatened by abstraction which was reducing flow well below the indicative Environmental Flow Indicators. The Friends of the Ems (FotE) formed in September 2020. We have been campaigning since then to rescue the River, with short, medium and long term aims. Initially we hope to secure an increase in the level of augmentation and a seasonal reduction in abstraction, whilst the medium and long term goals undergo further consideration. Ultimately our aim is for the complete cessation of abstraction. With this in mind we have set our sights on higher level consultations and recently made a submission to Ofwat’s consultation about strategic regional water resources which is considering Portsmouth Water Company and Southern Water Company proposals to cope with an increasing water deficit. We are awaiting Ofwat’s response in September 2021.

The river at its best

Further information on Friends of the Ems can be found on the Greening Westbourne website here;


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