One in three rivers is in danger of drying out due to demand for drinking water, including some of the country's most famous stretches of salmon fishing, according to conservationists.
By Louise Gray, Environment CorrespondentPublished: 7:00AM BST 28 Apr 2010
The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) fears that the growing population will mean more water from Britain's rivers is needed for washing and drinking in future.
They are already running low and climate change could make the situation even worse as floods and droughts become more frequent.
The charity is warning that during a hot summer with little rainfall, a third could almost completely dry out because so much water is being taken by utility companies. This would have catastrophic consequences for wildlife.
The charity wants new restrictions so that water companies can no longer take too much water from areas where wildlife is endangered. Also households need to cut their water use by more than 10 per cent over the next 20 years, it says.
The Rivers on the Edge report looked at some of Britain's best-loved chalk streams including the Itchen in Hampshire, a famous fishing river. Like other rivers in England, wildlife including otters, salmon, kingfishers and water voles have struggled to survive as more and more water is taken from the river to feed the nearby cities of Southampton and Portsmouth.
The Environment Agency estimate that river flows in some areas could be reduced by 80 per cent by 2050 and ecosystems in a third of river catchments are already in danger of drying out in a hot summer. Rivers in danger include the upper Wharfe in Yorkshire and a number of rivers in the south including the Severn.
The WWF said the only way to control the problem is to reduce the amount of water being used. At the moment people in Britain use around 150 litres per day but this needs to come down 12.5 per cent to 130 litres by 2030.
The charity want water meters in every home across the country to help households limit water use and education programmes to help people save water. For example by taking showers rather than baths.
The water companies also need to stop leaks, with 3,000 million litres wasted every day. Water can be saved by using more "recycled" effluent from sewage for irrigation and non-drinking water.
The WWF called for a complete overhaul of water regulation in the UK so that water is used in a more sustainable way. At the moment most abstraction levels are set by licences handed out in the 1960s, resulting in up to 3,300 million litres more per day being taken from certain rivers than the environment can sustain.
WWF want all damaging abstraction licences to be amended or revoked by 2020, so that water companies can no longer drain rivers that are important to wildlife.
Alicia Doherty, of WWF, admitted it will cost money to revoke the licences and to improve infrastructure but argued it could bring down costs in the long run.
"Water stress or water scarcity, where we are simply taking too much water from the natural environment – is a big issue in the UK. Yet it's one that many of us are unaware of," she said. "One third of river catchments predominantly in the south and east of the country are over abstracted and over licensed to the extent that we are risking significant damage to ecosystems. This is only likely to get worse as the climate changes and our population rises. A range of options and considerable innovation will be needed to address unsustainable abstraction."