A group of water companies have pledged to invest millions of pounds to protect the country’s chalk streams by reducing the amount of water they abstract from them for public drinking supply and cutting pollution.

The pledge was made at an online Chalk Stream Summit organised by the Chalk Rivers Action Group (CRAG) and attended by Water Minister, Rebecca Pow, along with representatives from several environmental groups plus senior leaders from Thames Water, Anglian Water, Affinity Water and Southern Water. There are only 200 chalk streams known globally, 85% of which are found in the UK in southern and eastern England. While some chalk streams, notably the Kennet, Lambourne, Test and Itchen, benefit from formal designations under the EU Habitats Directive, many, such as the Chess in the Chilterns, do not.

At the summit each water company laid out its plans to stop the decline of English chalk streams and reverse the decline so their flows, health and ecological status recover and are protected in the future.This included stopping sewage discharges into chalk streams from sewers and treatment sites, which are currently permitted during and following heavy rain to alleviate pressure on the system and reducing or stopping the abstraction of water from vulnerable chalk streams.

Sarah Bentley, Thames Water CEO, said:

“In 2017 we announced we would seek to close all our abstractions from vulnerable chalk streams, where supported by our customers, and I want to reassure you I fully support this ambition but also recognise we need to go further. Restoring and protecting chalk streams requires a team effort and I look forward to working with government, regulators, public bodies, environmental NGOs, and the local communities to deliver activities on the ground. We’ve already made good progress and have ambitious plans for the future.”

Attendees also heard how cross water company and regional level planning will help ensure demand for water from households, businesses, industry and agriculture can be met in the future without reliance on chalk streams through the development of new sources of water, increased storage such as new reservoirs, and reducing demand through consumer education and metering.

Peter Simpson, Chief Executive of Anglian Water said:

“We’ve already begun to see the environmental benefits of taking a catchment-based approach in our region. We fully support exploring new ways to work in partnership to restore, enhance and protect the unique chalk streams across the East of England. “Over the next five years we’ll be investing £811 million protecting and enhancing the environment in our region, including millions which will go towards improving river water quality. But we recognise there’s even more to do, which is why we’re already working with Defra to outline how we can to go even further, and faster, as part of our commitment to ensuring a green recovery post covid-19.”

Affinity Water’s director of corporate affairs, Jake Rigg commented:

“Chalk streams are a precious part of our local and national heritage and a priceless natural resource. This is the decade where we will either protect and enhance the environment for every generation or fall further behind. We recognise this is not a new issue, but it is clear that we need to act with urgency.”  Affinity Water announced in September that it had stopped taking water from boreholes at the top of the Chess Valley and committed to end unsustainable abstraction from chalk groundwater sources in its supply area.  The utility will follow up the changes in the Chess catchment by significantly reducing groundwater abstraction in the Ver and Mimram catchments in 2024.

Paul Jennings from the River Chess Association said:

“Like all chalk streams the River Chess is a rare and fragile ecosystem. For it to thrive we need reliable flows and clean unpolluted water. These are the fundamental issues for all rivers, for the Chess, with recently announced reductions in abstraction and the planned upgrading of the Chesham Sewage Treatment Works, progress is being made.”

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