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Former Environment Minister Richard Benyon leads calls for a complete overhaul of water abstraction regime as drought crisis beckons


River Colne London Colney 350px wide

The upper River Colne at London Colney on April 22nd 2017, where a combination of drought and over-abstraction has left the river running dry. Image credit: Otterspool Angling Club.

With the general election now likely to take place as drought conditions threaten parts of the South East of England, a cross party group of MPs headed by former Environment Minister Richard Benyon, and backed by farming and wildlife groups, has called for a complete overhaul of the UK's outdated water abstraction regime.

Last month Richard Benyon chaired a round table summit in the House of Commons organised by the Angling Trust and WWF-UK to examine possible solutions for better land and water management in order to reduce the impact of agriculture and abstraction on rivers and fisheries. With just 1 in 5 rivers in England and Wales classed in good ecological health, and future opportunities and threats arising from the plans to leave the European Union, all participants agreed that it is vital that the new government takes leadership on water and land management early in the next Parliament.

The groups have now sent a joint letter to Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and to her opposite numbers on the Labour and Liberal Democrat front benches pressing for a commitment from all parties to deliver the long promised reform of our current abstraction regime. This was first promised in the 2011 Water White Paper but excluded from the Water Bill enacted in the last parliament.  However, Water Minister Therese Coffey has written to the Angling Trust saying that abstraction reform will not be implemented until the early 2020s, leaving the country with a water abstraction regime that is no longer fit for purpose.

A dry winter has been followed by near record low levels of rainfall in April (around 5% of long term average in the South) with groundwater levels now indicating the real possibility of a drought later in the year. In London Colney the River Colne has dried up completely and a number of the Hertfordshire chalk streams are also at risk.  Winter rainfall is not harvested efficiently with some water companies such as Affinity Water having very little storage facility, causing them to be over reliant on pumping from rivers and groundwater sources rather than reservoirs. Despite a huge increase in population, the last reservoir built in the South East was nearly 50 years ago.

Richard Benyon MP said: “We need an abstraction regime that is fit for today rather than 50 years ago when it was set up. Warmer drier winters, periods of drought and other changing weather patterns mean this should be a priority for the new Government to tackle. The work has been done; we now need legislation to put a modern abstraction regime in place.”

Dr Rose O’Neill, WWF Water Policy Manager, commented: “While we can’t make it rain, we can get much better at managing water sustainably. Water abstraction licences, given out over 50 years ago allow companies to take water even though we know it has a devastating effect on the environment and do little to encourage water saving. The government recognised that this system is broken, and promised reform. However, it has recently announced its long promised Water Bill will be on the backburner because of Brexit. As our precious rivers and streams dry up this summer, the government can no longer delay – urgent action with new policy on abstraction is needed to ensure we can manage our water resources, encouraging efficiency of use while also protecting the environment.”

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal added: “We need a dramatic change in the way that we manage our soils, slurry and farm chemicals if we are to have any hope of achieving the government’s stated aim of leaving the environment in a better condition for the next generation.  Abstraction reform has been talked about for over a decade, but successive administrations have repeatedly failed to grasp this nettle and, as much of the country heads once again for drought, the environment and our fisheries will suffer needless damage.  Reform cannot wait until the 2020s as the Water Minister has suggested, but needs to be implemented urgently to reduce uncertainty for businesses and to protect the water environment and the wildlife it supports.  Millions of anglers and other voters who cherish our rivers and lakes are waiting for action to back up the government’s rhetoric on the environment.”

Further information:

1. A copy of the letter send to Andrea Leadsom and to her counterparts in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties can be downloaded here.

2. A copy of the covering letter can be downloaded here.

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