World-famous, globally rare and extraordinarily biodiverse, the Wessex chalk streams are irreplaceable, relying on a steady, crystal-clear aquifer-fed flow of water.
Our chalk streams are facing a water crisis. With the demands of a growing human population and increasingly extreme weather patterns, river flows are becoming less reliable. The summer of 2019 saw some chalk streams in the South East run completely dry, which should flow year round, sounding the alarm for chalk rivers of the Wessex region.
Plans have been drawn up to improve the water situation in Southern Water’s (Hampshire) Western Area. These include the construction of reservoirs and desalination plants, and setting up water transfer schemes. It will take 10 years or more for new sources of water to be up and running and drought permits are expected to be needed to allow abstractions to continue during the next decade until the permanent new supply schemes are in place. Until then, Southern Water are legally obliged to bridge this gap with works to mitigate against the potential impact on chalk stream reaches likely affected by drought permit abstraction.
Southern Water are also legally obliged to provide habitat compensation by improving the quality and flow resilience of sections of chalk stream not directly impacted by drought permits (but nonetheless vulnerable to climatic low flow events). This compensation package amounts to one of the largest investments in the water environment in a decade; an unprecedented sum of money for the rivers of Southern England. Wessex Rivers Trust will lead on the delivery of this compensation work via the FReSH (Flow Resilient Sustainable Habitat) Water Programme.
The FReSH Water Programme is an ambitious package of projects aimed at improving the resilience of our chalk streams to drought conditions. Through the restoration of natural processes and habitats, we aim to give our rivers back the tools they need to adjust to annual fluctuations, improving the ecological performance of our rare chalk streams through high and low flows. These changes will continue to benefit our rivers even after abstraction is reduced, cushioning the chalk stream environment against climate change and water quality concerns.
Towards the end of 2019, Southern Water approached the Trust to see whether we would take on the role of lead delivery partner for the compensatory river habitat parts of the Section 20 Agreement. After careful consideration, and having sought legal advice, we concluded the following:
- This offer presented a significant opportunity for a real step-change environmental improvement for the chalk streams of Hampshire
- The Trust was the best placed organisation to deliver this change, keeping the agreement holders to task and maintaining a non-commercial focus on the environment
Before documents are signed, we have made sure that our independence could be guaranteed, and appropriate governance structures were in place. As the relevant authority, the Environment Agency, supported by Natural England, will assess and sign off all proposed plans and delivered projects when they meet the objectives of the Section 20 agreement. Southern Water’s role is limited to provide funding to cover all the costs of the programme.
Our chalk streams are facing a water crisis. With the demands of a growing human population and increasingly extreme weather patterns, river flows are becoming less reliable. The summer of 2019 saw some chalk streams in the South East run completely dry, sounding the alarm for the chalk rivers of the Wessex region.
World-famous, globally rare and extraordinarily biodiverse, the Wessex chalk streams are irreplaceable. They do, however, rely on a steady, reliable, and crystal-clear aquifer-fed flow, which is under threat in this water crisis.
The FReSH (Flow Resilient Sustainable Habitat) Water Programme is an ambitious package of projects aimed at improving the resilience of our rivers to drought conditions. Through the restoration of natural processes and habitats, we aim to give back the tools our rivers need to adjust to annual fluctuations driven by our changing climate and population, improving the ecological performance of our rare chalk streams through high and low flows.
Southern Water is legally obliged to pay for the delivery of this programme. This follows from an agreement under Section 20 of the Water Resources Act between the Environment Agency and Southern Water signed in 2018.
The agreement acknowledges the requirement for developing alternative water resources (e.g. surface water reservoirs, desalination of seawater and cross border transfer schemes) to meet the demand if abstraction during periods of drought are not to threaten the health of the chalk streams in the Test & Itchen catchment.
However, these alternative resources may not be ready for 10-12 year, meaning a significant investment from Southern Water is required in the interim to help increase the resilience of these fragile habitats during potential drought conditions. This investment is being made both to mitigate the areas deemed to be at risk from drought abstraction and to provide compensatory habitat for the risk on the designated River Itchen by improving similar habitats elsewhere. The FReSH Water Programme is focussed on the compensation element of this investment.
Wessex RT are in the best position to deliver an ambitious programme as we know the rivers and already have good relationships with many landowners, fisheries managers and other key stakeholders. The combination of our expert local knowledge and experience, as well as our relatively small size and non-commercial status, means we can make funds go further, achieving the maximum benefit for the chalk streams in Wessex.
The Lower River Test, parts of the River Itchen and Candover Brook (River Itchen tributary) are deemed to be affected by abstraction during drought periods.
The Trust will be delivering compensation measures on rivers that will not be directly impacted by Southern Water abstraction during drought conditions. These include: the middle reaches of the main River Test (Kimbridge to Wherwell), the River Dever, River Dun and Bourne Rivulet (tributaries of the River Test), the River Meon and possibly also the Dorset Stour. These watercourses have been chosen as they either share similar characteristics to, or host the same priority species as, the impacted reaches.
There are three main works streams within the overall Section 20 agreement – one focusses on environmental monitoring, one on implementing permanent mitigation, and the last one on permanent compensatory habitat. The Environment Agency and Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust are undertaking most of the monitoring and mitigation works, with Southern Water undertaking some monitoring directly. The Wildlife Trust is also to deliver some compensatory habitat work, especially in respect of white-clawed crayfish and Southern Damselfly. The Wessex River Trust’s FReSH Water Programme only deals with implementing compensatory river habitat.
Mitigation is aimed at reducing the impacts of drought abstraction, at those sites affected by the abstraction. Improvement and creation of ‘compensatory habitat ’ is required specifically in respect of the Habitats Directive designated features of the River Itchen and Candover stream and it cannot legally be implemented on the sections of river directly impacted by the drought orders.
Prioritisation of reaches subject to improvement work will be based upon the benefit that works will achieve for the priority species and habitats detailed within the SAC classification, whilst achieving best value for money. Selection of these sites will be informed predominantly by data collected by the Trust or made available from our partner organisations.
The Trust will work closely with the Environment Agency, who developed and managed the delivery of the Test and Itchen River Restoration Strategy for the past decade. This strategy involved the collection of a wealth of valuable information which has underpinned the successful delivery of a range of restoration schemes on each of these rivers. In addition, the Trust has undertaken extensive walkover surveys of several of the rivers included within the programme of works, assessing condition and recording opportunities for habitat restoration and enhancement. Effective engagement and positive working relationships lie at the heart of the Trust’s approach, with the successful delivery of restoration and enhancement work on these rivers bolstered by this buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders.
Sites will be chosen primarily based upon the benefit that works will achieve for the target habitats and species. However, where sites may deliver multiple benefits i.e. improving aesthetics at sites with existing public access this may be favourably factored into the prioritisation process.
The Trust will be contacting a wide range of riparian (river) landowners and land managers, about the project. This will include estates, commercial fisheries, farms, private and residential landowners, commercial properties and local councils. Ownership and management of the rivers is fragmented and will require engagement with multiple stakeholders. We will be working with the Environment Agency, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and Southern Water to ensure contacts will be coordinated across the various work streams of the overall programme.
We will work with landowners, fishery managers and other stakeholders to identify existing and future threats to the chalk stream environment; developing custom solutions to maximise the river’s ability to cope with increased seasonal variation in flow. Works will be bespoke to individual sites but may include interventions that:
• Improve weed growth (e.g. water crowfoot Ranunculus and starwort Callitriche communities).
• Improve habitat connectivity for fish and other wildlife – particularly during low flows.
• Diversify flow patterns to maximise habitat quality over a broad range flow conditions.
• Improve habitat for emergent and marginal wetland plants, invertebrates and river wildlife.
• Improve the abundance and diversity of fish holding, spawning and/or nursery habitat.
• Adjust light/shade levels to balance productivity with water temperature.
• Reprofile the channel to improve flow speeds/depths during lower flows.
• Adjust channel plan form (flow path) to improve abundance and/or diversity of habitat features.
• Adjust channel capacity to better match annual flows.
• Maintain opportunities for angling and other recreational activities over a wide range of flows.
The overall focus of the project is the delivery of habitat restoration and enhancement works as well as facilitating the movement of salmon up and down the rivers in question.
The exact type of work to be carried out depends on the habitat and/or species which we are compensating for. For example, where we are looking to compensate for the potential impacts to salmon on the Itchen during drought, we will look to improve fish passage and/or spawning habitat for the species on the Test, Meon or Dorset Stour.
The aim is to compensate for the potential damage caused by the abstracting water during drought on the environmentally protected site (e.g. Itchen SAC). Specifically, this means the chalk stream habitat and the species which are closely associated with this habitat, including the Atlantic salmon, native white-clawed crayfish and southern damselfly.
The FReSH Water Programme and Watercress & Winterbournes (funded by NHLF) partly overlap, both in target area as well as objectives. Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and ourselves are the two key partners in both projects, and therefore we will be in a great position to find synergies and make sure the combined funding stretches as far as possible.
We have accepted this work for one reason: to protect and restore the iconic chalk streams of Wessex and, more specifically, East Hampshire. It provides us with a once in a generation opportunity to make a significant difference and leave chalk streams in a better state.
Nevertheless, we acknowledge that this programme is ultimately rooted in the lack of historical investment in alternative water resources and an absence of focus on reducing leakage, reducing water-use and recycling water in previous decades. Therefore, the only right action now is doing both – reduce abstraction and make our rivers more resilient – and that is why we are committed to make sure they both happen.
The budget for this programme has been set by the Environment Agency and is based on estimated full costs for a minimum length of river to be made more resilient and a minimum number of obstructions to fish passage removed or bypassed. Southern Water does not decide where the money goes to. At present, contractual restrictions and commercial confidence prevent us from sharing the value of the total investments.
We acknowledge that Southern Water has made recent positive changes, with an overhaul of their management structure and changes how they appreciate water as a valuable but not endless natural resource. However, there is still a lot of catching up to do, and there are ongoing criminal investigations on historic pollution events. We will remain vigilant and continue to challenge Southern Water on every level where we see fit.
All plans and projects are to be signed off by the Environment Agency and Natural England, and they will do that based on empirical data. We have already started to collate base-line data in close co-operation with the Wildlife Trust and statutory partners on ecology, water quantity and quality and will continue with that to make sure our interventions delivery what we want from them.