The battle to save England’s chalk streams, one of the world’s rarest habitats | Rivers
VSCurator Allen Beechey remembers a time in the 1990s when trout swam along the Chess River as it meandered through the center of his hometown of Chesham. “It was a sweet and reassuring sight and it helped spark my love of nature,” Beechey said last week.
Then came the droughts, the river dried up – sometimes for years in a row – and the fish died. They have not yet returned to the town of Buckinghamshire.
But Beechey dreams that one day the trout will return to this part of the river, which is one of the most important chalk streams in England. It would be a signal that this critically important but highly endangered habitat is returning to good health after years of damage from increased water withdrawals and other threats.
Those hopes were raised recently when the local water company, Affinity, announced that it had stopped withdrawing water from the Chess. Previously, it took about 6 million liters per day from the river from two pumping stations in Chesham and Chartridge, a neighboring village. This abstraction has now been discontinued and water for the region is now piped from other parts of southern England, including areas near the Thames.
“We have reconfigured our network to bring water from elsewhere and while it costs quite a bit of money, we recognize the importance of saving this precious habitat,” said Jake Rigg, Head of Corporate Affairs. and communities at Affinity Water.
Chalk streams are among the rarest habitats on the planet and 85% of them are found in England. Of the 260 true chalk streams on Earth, 224 of them flow through the English countryside, as shown in WWF’s 2014 State of England Chalk Streams report, a reflection of the country’s geology and climate. temperate. (France has most of the other chalky streams, including the Somme.) These streams emerge from subterranean limestone aquifers and usually flow over beds of flint gravel. This ensures their cleanliness but also endows them with dissolved iron and magnesium minerals.
Aquatic plants such as Flag Iris and Water Crowfoot thrive on their shores; the yellow ephemeral of Dun yellow and the ephemeral green of Drake flourish in their ultra-clean waters; while otters, kingfishers and water voles have made their home there. They embody the tranquility of the English countryside. Kenneth grahame Wind in the willows unfolds around a chalk stream; Wordsworth, Rupert Brooke and Tennyson have expressed their love for them; while Sir John Betjeman wrote of one of them, the Kennett: “When the trout tossed lazily in the clear chalk streams, the glory was in me …”
But like other rare habitats such as rainforest and coral reef, Chalk Creek also suffers from environmental threats – two particular threats of greatest concern.
“First, the chalk streams are being drained of their water by companies trying to satisfy the country’s growing thirst,” said Beechey, who manages the Chilterns Chalk Streams project. “This process began in earnest in the 1970s as more and more homes were built and fitted with dishwashers, showers, washing machines and other household appliances.”
These devices have helped increase household water use by 70% since 1985 in the UK, and as a result, abstraction rates have skyrocketed across the country, including those in the Chilterns Aquifers, home to some of the best in the country. chalk streams. This led to the drying up of rivers and streams which began in the 90s and hit Chesham in 1997.
But abstraction is not the only problem. “There is also the impact of global warming which is triggering more and more heat waves which in turn help to dry up rivers,” added Rigg.
This threat is now becoming a major concern after the Met Office recently warned that over the next five years there is now a 40% chance that global temperatures will reach 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial levels, the upper limit that climatologists want to set. for the warming of our planet.
In recent years, the increasing number of heat waves has led to an increasing number of dry chalk streams in many places. Overall, less than a fifth of all rivers in England are now considered to be in good condition.
It was against this disturbing backdrop that the Chiltern Chalk Stream Project and local community groups began discussions with Affinity Water with the goal of stopping water abstraction from the Chess River – which resulted in the decision to stop the catchment around Chesham. Last week, the crystal clear waters of chess poured over the city, glistening in the sun.
However, there is still a long way to go to save the Chilterns’ chalk streams – a point made by Beechey. “The abstraction around Chesham is only part of the story. The Chilterns have one of the highest water use rates in the country – around 170 liters per person per day – and we need to reduce that. In addition, no reservoir has been built in the southeast since the 1970s. We need investment. People assume that water will always be cheap, clean and from the tap. But there is a limit. “
A measure of the vulnerability of chalk streams was illustrated by the 2019 drought that dried up 67% of those in the Chilterns. These punitive cycles of water loss kill vulnerable wildlife. “The end of the catchment around Chesham is a signal that we can do something but the water companies and the government need to do a lot more – and they need to do it quickly,” Beechey added.
“To do nothing would be tantamount to leaving tropical forests cut down at their current rate or allowing coral reefs to slowly erode without trying to save them. The chalk streams are a vital part of the English countryside and we must fight to save them.