Sunday, 30 August 2009

Houses that Labour built put rivers in peril

Jonathan Leake, Environment Editor

SOME of Britain’s most picturesque rivers and tributaries are at risk of running dry because of the government’s house-building programme, a study has found.
Waterways facing the worst depletion include the Kennet, the Itchen and the Lee — all in southern England, where development pressure is greatest.
However, rivers have been affected throughout England and Wales, and the Environment Agency is seeking permission to revoke or reduce 380 licences that allow water companies and other users to extract supplies.
Rose Timlett, a freshwater campaigner at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which commissioned the research, said Labour’s decision in 1998 to approve up to 5m new homes, mostly in southern England, had ignored the impact on rivers.
“About 35 billion litres of water are taken from rivers in England and Wales each day,” she said. “Water levels have fallen, and that will get worse as more homes are built.”
Rivers in trouble include the Kennet, which every day supplies 53,000 homes with 19m litres of water as it flows from the North Wessex Downs through Wiltshire countryside before meeting the Thames at Reading. Some 30,000 of those homes are in Swindon, where a further 30,000 properties are planned by 2026.
Some Kennet tributaries have already vanished because Thames Water also pumps up to 8m litres of water a day from natural underground reservoirs, so lowering the surrounding water table.
Eilidh and Phil Jenkins, who live with their daughters Bethan, 11, and Molly, 10, fear a similar impact on the Itchen, which runs close to their home. Flowing from the chalk hills of the South Downs, east of Winchester, to Southampton, it supplies 400,000 homes with 120m litres of water a day. Another 80,000 new homes are planned for the area.
Eilidh, 39, a psychologist, said: “We walk and cycle alongside the river, which sustains water meadows and wildlife. If the level dropped it would do a lot of damage.”
Similar problems afflict the upper tributaries of the River Lee, which flows from a source near Luton, to the Thames.
The Mimram, Beane, Ash, Rib and Stort flow through 14 nature reserves in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire and are a haven for species such as otter, water vole, bittern and brown trout. However, they are also a main water source for the burgeoning towns of Luton, Stevenage, Welwyn Garden City and Hertford, with 409m litres taken daily for 1.2m homes.
Some Lee tributaries, such as the Mimram, already dry out in the summer, while the Beane is just a ditch because its water goes to Stevenage.
The WWF study, called Rivers on the Edge, found the tributaries to be so depleted that, in dry periods, most of the water running in the Lee comes from sewage treatment plants. Despite such problems, however, the region has been earmarked for tens of thousands of new homes, including 16,000 in Stevenage alone.
Dr Tom Tew, chief scientist of the government conservation watchdog Natural England, said: “We are abstracting too much water from our finest rivers, and new homes will make it worse. It is unsustainable and we cannot continue.”
Such warnings are echoed by the Environment Agency, which has named other British rivers affected, including the Avon in Gloucestershire, the headwaters of the Ribble in North Yorkshire, the Dart — which flows across Dartmoor in Devon — and the Wensum in Norfolk.
Both organisations believe a key underlying problem is that water companies have been allowed to retain water-abstraction licences issued before the introduction of national legislation in 1963. As such licences have no expiry date, companies can keep taking water regardless of changed conditions. This is compounded by surging demand for water to irrigate gardens and supply washing machines, dishwashers and power showers. Each person in Britain now uses 146 litres of water a day.
Catherine Wright, head of water resource management at the Environment Agency, which wants to revoke or reduce 380 of the existing 20,000 abstraction licences, said: “We can only change licences with the approval of the environment secretary, which makes it a very lengthy process.”
Although the government is considering changing the law to streamline the system, this has been fiercely resisted by the water industry.
Barrie Clarke, a spokesman for Water UK, which represents Britain’s 23 water companies, said that while the industry accepted there was some damage from existing licences, there was no case for imposing time limits on all licences.
“The growth in the number of homes is going to increase the demand for water,” he said. “What’s crucial is to get the planning right, and that is the responsibility of the government, Environment Agency and local authorities. We do not have the final say, but we do have to supply the water.”