Consumer water demand puts river wildlife at risk


Conservationists and anglers are calling on the Government to act over the one third of rivers in England and Wales that are threatened by household water demand. The Government's upcoming Water White Paper will set out reforms to the water industry. The Our Rivers campaign is urging ministers to seize this opportunity to tackle the issue of over-abstraction by water companies which results in low-flowing waterways and dry riverbeds, a problem that is threatening wildlife across England and Wales.

River Dunsop, Lancashire (photo: Richard Bayldon).

The Government has identified 148 rivers where over-abstraction is damaging rivers and the wildlife they support, but there has been no action to reduce the amount of water taken. A survey of Our Rivers supporters focused on the threats faced by rivers last year suggested that as many as 191 rivers are being damaged by abstraction.

The current system of abstraction licensing is outdated, campaigners say. The forthcoming White Paper must set out a clear timetable and strategy for how damaging abstraction will be reduced. More must also be done to reduce the amount of water taken from the natural environment by encouraging greater water efficiency through universal metering and fixing our leaking network of water pipes.

River Eden, Cumbria (photo: Paul Kennedy).

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Ralph Underhill, Our Rivers campaign spokesman, said: "Low-flowing rivers and dry river beds are clear signs that wildlife is suffering and action must be taken. Waterways become clogged with weeds, fish are unable to reach their spawning grounds and pollution in the water becomes more highly concentrated. We all need water in our daily lives, but we can do more for wildlife without affecting our household water supplies. Nationally important wildlife sites are struggling to cope with abstraction demands so we must ensure we are taking the right amount of water from the right places. Demand for water will only increase and our natural environment must not pay the price for this."

"Many of our rivers have lacked the water they need to sustain themselves and their wildlife for far too long — in some cases decades — and it is high time a clear solution is found. It's vital that the Government tackles the issue head on. The White Paper must signal to water companies that it expects solutions to be included in the next round of company business plans."

Some of the rivers worst affected by abstraction include the Kennet near Reading, the Beane and the Mimram in Hertfordshire, the Avon in Gloucestershire, the top of the Ribble in Yorkshire, the Wensum in East Anglia and the River Usk in Monmouthshire. Our Rivers supporters will be taking part in a letter-writing campaign to urge environment minister Richard Benyon to set out a clear timetable to restore river flows and to end unsustainable levels of abstraction in England and Wales by 2020. The Campaign is also calling for more action to tackle agricultural pollution at its source rather than at treatment works.

Written by: RSPB