Chalk Stream Strategy – One Year On

Last autumn saw the publication of the National Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy on the banks of the River Mimram. The Strategy was developed by a multi-stakeholder group – the CaBA Chalk Stream Group – with representatives from government, regulators, water companies, and NGOs. It sets out over 30 recommendations, across the three pillars of water quantity, water quality and habitat quality – the “trilogy of ecological health” – that underpins the restoration of our precious chalk streams.

In February this year, the Chiltern Society hosted a conference to hear from the strategy’s lead author, Charles Rangeley Wilson, and a panel of senior decision-makers, about its relevance for the Chilterns.

One year on, the CaBA Chalk Stream Group has published an assessment of progress against the strategy.

So, what progress has been made for Chiltern Chalk Streams?

Let’s start with the good news. It is fantastic that the “Chalk Stream First” concept now has explicit support from Ofwat. This is the principle, backed by the Chiltern Society,  where abstraction from chalk groundwater is shifted away from the headwaters of the Colne and Lea tributaries, to further downstream – allowing flows in these chalk streams to renaturalise. It is also encouraging to see that Affinity Water is supporting the reduction of abstraction from the Colne and Lea Tributary headwaters with plans to advance the Grand Union Canal transfer scheme before 2030. This scheme will enable water from Birmingham to pass along the canal to Leighton Buzzard, where it will be treated and supplied to homes in the Chilterns, negating the need to pump so much from Chiltern chalk groundwater. You can hear more about this scheme in this podcast from Affinity Water

It also promising that Thames Water is committing to close its groundwater abstraction at Hawridge, in the headwaters of the Chess.

In the “reasonably positive” camp is the government’s Storm Overflow Reduction Plan to address raw sewage overflows into rivers and coastal waters. Although the proposed pace of change is disappointing, the plan does at least set out a legally binding and time-bound target. It’s also encouraging that chalk streams have been classified as high priority sites, meaning that by 2035 water companies will have had to improve 75% of sewage overflows discharging to them.

In the “disappointing” camp is the continued lack of overarching statutory protection for chalk streams to give them a distinct identity and drive investment. Indeed, three of the four integrated policy recommendations in the strategy are showing a distinct lack of progress.

It’s also important to note that many of the water company schemes which would allow reductions in chalk groundwater abstraction are only proposals, they are not yet cast-iron commitments. When Ofwat conducts its economic and affordability assessment of water company Business Plans in 2024, what will remain?

We all have a role to play. It’s important that we continue to diligently track progress against this strategy, and not allow the water companies or regulators to prevaricate if solutions appear too costly or too complicated. Also note that Affinity Water’s draft Water Resources Management Plan is out for consultation until 20th February, and Thames Water’s will be out soon – so now is the time to voice your support for Chiltern Chalk Streams and address the over-abstraction issue.