River Health

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Our local rivers – Itchen,Test and Meon, are just three of the seventeen chalk streams that flow into the Solent according to a WWF healthcheck study of Britain’s chalk streams in 2014*.

The report found that of the 224 chalk streams in the UK only 5% were adequately protected – fragile ecosystems at risk from both pollution and abstraction. The Itchen was singled out as one example where conservation targets were not being met. Why is this still news? Two recent incidents highlight why the risk remains five years on:

Pollution
In June the BBC Countryfile ran a piece on the quality of the river Itchen and found that while the Environment Agency (EA) monitors water quality it fails to address key indicators of river health. The EA admitted to measuring only those pollutants notified by those discharging into the river. This is not an exhaustive list of possible contaminants and cynics call reliance on disclosure akin to ‘marking their own homework’ – less vigorous policing than you might expect from a regulator. Viewers discovered that former watercress beds, now owned by a salad packing company, are used to wash imported produce thus increasing the risk of foreign micro-organisms entering the chalk stream. The Environment Agency did not accept this as a potential danger worth monitoring.

Abstraction
In July the water company Southern Water admitted to having falsified water quality data over a seven year period and was fined by Ofwat. Why did the regulator not pick this up sooner? Presumably, like the Environment Agency, it relied on evidence supplied by those over whom it has oversight and failed to carry out checks using its own staff. While Southern is now under the spotlight for waste water processing, we should not forget that it is a major abstractor of water from chalk streams in order to supply households and businesses in its region. Requests are increasing with consumer demand. Does EA question requests for abstraction provided by the water company, or does it carry out independent rigorous impact assessments on acquifer depletion?

To conclude, I would like to believe that our chalk streams are protected by regulators like the Environment Agency and Ofwat, but I am not certain this faith is well placed. Do our regulators have sufficient funds or must they like the WWF seek sponsors like Coca Cola with whom to fund research and thus offer the opportunity of ‘greenwash’ to commercial operators. it is also worth looking at the ownership of Southern Water to see that customers probably are less important than shareholders! Our streams are delicate ecosystems and need protection now more than ever.

Written by Garry Honey, a local resident and risk consultant who has a passion for chalk stream protection.
Email: [email protected]