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FROSTY'S RAMBLINGS 'Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to ...'

PETER FROST highlights the contrasts between recent floods and drying English chalk streams

IT WAS  a bit like Alice in Wonderland. I’d just started work on an article on the plight of English chalk streams drying up and being poisoned by heavily polluted runoff from agriculture and road networks. My wife Ann had suggested the subject after hearing a report on BBC local news.

Then my phone started pinging. Sue, a mate of Ann’s for over 60 years was telling us about flats around her in Paddington flooding with sewage up to her neighbour’s knees.

Anne, another Young Communist friend from the 1960’s, now living in Germany is telling us about the dozens of deaths caused by floods near her German home. There are floods too in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

It seemed to me that climate change, which I have been writing about for so long, has upped its game and graduated to the severe bum-biting stage.  

I have written about English chalk streams before. They hold a special place in my heart. For many years I lived beside the river Chess in Hertfordshire. Indeed I paid my poll tax to a local authority called Three Rivers. It took its name from the rivers Chess, Colne and Gade.

Chalk streams are some of the planet’s rarest habitats and 85 per cent of them are found here in England. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of the 260 true chalk streams on Earth, 224 of them run through the English countryside.  

These streams emerge from underground chalk aquifers and typically flow over flinty gravel beds. This ensures their cleanliness but also endows them with dissolved iron and magnesium minerals.

With crystal waters at an average of 10°C they host a variety of creatures such as trout, voles and kingfishers. Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful Wind in the Willows was set on a chalk stream. His heroes and villains the animals that make English chalk streams their home.

These streams are rare, important, and irreplaceable. They are, for instance, far more threatened than other global landscape features such as coral reefs or tropical rain forests.

Our English chalk streams have got themselves a new champion and defender recently. Feargal Sharkey, ageing rock star and front man of the Undertones 30 years ago, has now become an eco-warrior fighting to protect the perilous state of Britain’s streams and rivers.

After quitting the music business Sharkey discovered the joys of fly fishing and where better than in England’s chalk streams and the rivers, like the Lea and the Stort fed by the chalk streams around his Hertfordshire home.

He recently told the Daily Mirror that spending decades standing knee-deep in rivers, meant he has gained a deep understanding of this endangered watery world. He was heavily critical of the agencies that are responsible for letting the nation’s rivers die.

“There is not one river in England in good ecological condition. Every single one is being slowly poisoned by sewage,” he said. “It is a shocking state of affairs.”

Not a single lake or river recently tested in England achieved “good chemical status,” according to a report released last year. Only 16 per cent are considered to have “good ecological status.”

Sharkey took the Mirror reporter to the Amwell Magna Fishery, the oldest fly-fishing club in England near Ware on the banks of the old River Lea, in Hertfordshire. Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler caught trout here in the 17th century.

It was here 400 years later that Sharkey became aware of the plight of the nation’s waterways after the local chalk stream had almost completely dried up, putting at risk the brown trout.

Although the club was able to save the fish the incident spurred Sharkey on to become an environmental river champion.

“In a word, the state of our rivers and streams is catastrophic,” he explained. “There is not a single chalk stream that is not suffering from extensive environmental damage.

“These streams contain some most pristine water on the planet. It spends anything from six months to 60 years filtering through chalk. It is great for wildlife but also makes great drinking water.

“The water companies have been allowed by the Environment Agency to deprive rivers of the very basic resource they need to survive — water.”

As well as birds, fish and animals chalk streams also are home to some rare and remarkable plants such as Flag Iris and Water Crowfoot. Insects like the brilliant sulphur coloured Yellow Dun Mayfly and Green Drake Mayfly flourish in their ultra-clean waters.
Let’s take a look at just one of these remarkable streams — the River Ivel that flows from Ivel springs near Baldock. This chalk stream runs through Baldock, Stotfold, Arlesey and Henlow and is home to a huge variety of rare and vulnerable wildlife.

Between May 2018 to December 2019 the river was completely dry from its source in Baldock to Radwell in Bedforshire where the stream should join and feed the river Great Ouse. Despite the heavy rains of early 2020, the river was dry again by July.

The river flow rate over the last few years has been dramatically reduced by heavy abstraction by water company Affinity Water, which takes between 10,000 and 14,000 tons of water every day from the boreholes immediately above Ivel Springs. The river valley dries, water levels drop, the river ceases to flow and wildlife dies.

The RevIvel Association is a community group formed in 2019 to help protect the future of the river Ivel.  The association’s Sharon Moat told us how the upper Ivel historically had sufficient depth to be teaming with fish while also supporting four watermills, breweries and a watercress industry. Today it is just a trickle of its former self, at risk of being lost forever.

Once the upper Ivel would accommodate boats; anything from barges, rowing boats, to punts. Today it is only barely navigable by canoe when it is in flood.

Chalk streams first came under heavy threat in the 1970s as more and more homes were being built and were being fitted with dishwashers, showers, washing machines and other thirsty appliances.

These devices have caused a 70 per cent increase in household water use since 1985 in the UK and, as a result the privatised water authority’s abstraction rates soared. This led to the drying out of rivers and chalk streams throughout the 1990s.

Margaret Thatcher privatised water in England and Wales in 1989. Since then, we’ve seen shareholders of private water companies siphoning off billions of pounds, and CEOs pocketing millions. Meanwhile, six of our privatised water companies have been found to be avoiding millions in tax.

All this while they closed their eyes to the environmental damage they were doing to their, and our, prime ample sources of clean and healthy water.   

Abstraction is not the only problem. The purity of chalk stream waters is being threatened more and more by chemical-rich run-off from agriculture and from roads. Add to that the all too frequent use of the streams as drains from various stages of sewage processing.

Global warming too is triggering more and more heat-waves that in turn are helping to dry out streams this despite our recent flooding events.

In recent years, rising numbers of heat-waves have led to increasing numbers of chalk streams being drained dry in many places. Overall fewer than one in five of all England’s rivers are now considered to be in anything like a healthy condition.

If we do nothing to protect our rare and remarkable chalk streams it would be like letting rainforests be chopped down at their current rate or letting coral reefs be slowly eroded without trying to save them.

Chalk streams are a quintessential component of this green and pleasant English countryside of ours and we all need to fight hard to be sure we can save them.


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