Keeping Rivers Flowing - Reforming the Water Abstraction System
A dried-up stretch of the upper River Kennet in Berkshire during the winter of 2012 - a victim of over-abstraction.
The Angling Trust, alongside other conservation and fisheries organisations, has long campaigned for complete reform of the existing water abstraction licensing regime. The right to abstract water from rivers, aquifers, reservoirs etc. in England and Wales was formally created by the Water Act of 1963, by amalgamating the plethora of previous licences into a single permitting regime. At the time, this was done with little or no consideration of what level of abstraction water bodies could actually sustain. Since then, we have seen a significant increase in both per capita use of water, population numbers and use of water for irrigation of crops.
It is our belief that the current regime is therefore no longer fit for purpose and has resulted in
inexcusable damage to the aquatic environment through excessive levels of abstraction being permitted.
Addressing unsustainable abstraction – abstraction reform
Environment Agency data obtained by WWF in late 2016 showed that a quarter of rivers in England were at risk from unsustainable abstraction:
- 14% were classified as over-abstracted – where current abstraction is causing river flows to drop below levels needed to sustain the ecosystem; and
- 9% were over-licensed, meaning that they would be over-abstracted if licence holders took all the water they were entitled to).
Low flows in rivers and water levels in lakes have a variety of damaging impacts on fish stocks:
- pollutants are concentrated
- temperatures increase
- oxygen levels decrease
- there is less wetted area for invertebrates and other food favoured by fish
- they are more vulnerable to predation
- they are less able to migrate up and down rivers to complete their lifecycle
- there is a greater risk of disease.
In December 2013, Defra published Making the Most of Every Drop: Consultation on Reforming the Water Abstraction Management System
. This was long-awaited, extremely welcome, and we are broadly supportive of the proposals outlined: the linking of abstraction to availability; the introduction of smart and graduated abstraction limits; protection for the environment at low flows; removal of the archaic requirement to pay compensation to abstractors when making charges to licences; and implementation via a catchment-based approach. All of these things will address some of the many shortfalls in the current system. Significantly, the proposals will encourage flexibility and efficiency and enable collaboration (including through shared use of resources and trading) to maximise the value of water and increase resilience in the water sector and water environment.
When implemented, the proposals will go a long way towards ensuring that we have a sustainable and resilient water management system that encourages efficiency of use while also protecting the environment. In order to prevent further damage to the unique and irreplaceable aquatic environments of the UK it is now absolutely essential that the government includes abstraction reform in the next Water Bill.
The Charter for Chalkstreams
In May 2013 the 'Charter for Chalk Streams' was launched on the banks of the over abstracted River Beane in Hertfordshire. Click here to read more