Why I am campaigning to protect our chalk streams
I remember, as a child, playing in the chalk streams at Fowlmere. They were so clear that the fish looked like they were floating in the air. But I went back to the RSPB reserve in Fowlmere during the election campaign and it was bone dry. It was not that the chalk streams were running low; they were not there at all.
Chalk streams run like a network of silver threads throughout South Cambridgeshire, the River Cam most famously, but also many of its tributaries such as the River Shep. It is vital we protect these natural assets, not only for the wildlife that thrives around them but for our own benefit. Chalk Streams, and indeed all of Cambridgeshire's waterways, provide water for our taps, showers, and hosepipes. If we continue to destroy these beautiful resources with rapid and unsustainable expansion, it is not just the rivers that will run dry.
What is a chalk stream?
Chalk streams are rivers that rise from springs in landscapes with chalk bedrock. Since chalk is permeable, water percolates easily through the ground to the water table and chalk streams, therefore, receive little surface runoff. As a result, the water in the streams is beautifully clear and the beds of the rivers are generally composed of clean, compacted gravel and flints. Of the 210 rivers classified as chalk streams globally, 160 are in England and many run through South Cambridgeshire.
So far, I have
- lobbied the Environment Agency to reasess South Cambridgeshire's status and elevated its status
- worked with Water Resources East and the Cam Valley Forum to promote a new reservoir (the first in Britain since the 1970s) to ease demand on water abstraction in the region.
- had discussions with DEFRA ministers and officials to ensure that the new Environmental Land Management Scheme - which replaces the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy subsidies – will provide financial incentives for farmers to adopt practices that reduce abstraction and protect chalk streams.
- written to the water regulator Ofwat to urge them to use their powers to require water companies to protect chalk streams
- written to Natural England, to ask them to give legal protection to chalk streams as a threatened habitat. This will strengthen the powers of the Environment Agency to preserve them.
- written to the Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, asking her to commit the Council to ensuring that new housebuilding does not lead to greater water abstraction.
- written to and met with Cambridge Water’s Managing Director, Andy Willicott, and Head of Water Strategy to press the case for protecting our chalk streams while keep our taps flowing.
- met with the Environment Secretary numerous times, including after the Duke of Wellington's amendment on sewage discharge to suggest proposals to that were later voted into law to place a clear legal duty on water companies to progressively reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows
- written to Anglian Water to demand answers over any potential breaches of their sewage discharge licences and will meet with them to hear how they intend to comply with legislation brought forward in the 2021 Environment Act.
Thanks to this campaign, the Environment Agency has reassessed South Cambridgeshire and elevated its status to “water-stressed area”, which will lead to a more rapid rollout of smart meters and helps water conservation. Furthermore, DEFRA created a Chalk Streams Working Group, to tackle the continued over-abstraction and water shortage problems faced in the county, and the Government has legislated to create water management schemes to help move water from wetter parts of the country to drier parts of the country. I was also able to announce an amendment to the Environment Act to ensure progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage.
It is fantastic that with the support of the government and its agencies that so much progress is being made so quickly in giving protection the chalk streams need. But housing growth and climate change make it an uphill struggle, and it will take quite a few years to have a noticeable impact. I will not stop fighting for our chalk streams until they are saved.