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Consumer water demand is putting river wildlife at risk

15.03.11

Our Rivers

Conservationists and anglers are calling on the Government to act over the one third of rivers in England and Wales which 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 which is threatening wildlife across England and Wales.

The Government has itself 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 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The current system of abstraction licensing is outdated, campaigners say.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.

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 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.

Issued by RSPB, WWF-UK, the Angling Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association

-Ends-

Notes to editors:

1. The Water White Paper is set to published by DEFRA in early summer and will focus on the future challenges facing the water industry. The DEFRA's Water White Paper webpage here - http://ww2.defra.gov.uk/environment/quality/water/whitepaper/

2. An Environment Agency annual report into the health status of rivers in England and Wales last year showed 72 per cent of rivers are failing European targets. Just four rivers out of nearly 6,000 assessed remain 'High' status waterways of near pristine condition. There were 26 per cent in the 'Good' category, the required European standard. The report classed 56 per cent as 'Moderate', 14 per cent as 'Poor' and two per cent as 'Bad'.

3. The Our Rivers campaign conducted a public vote to find the most loved and hated rivers in England and Wales last year. The Wye was voted our favourite river while The Thames was voted the worst. Over abstraction was one of the main reasons members of the public gave when voting in the worst river category, alongside sewage discharges, diffuse pollution, man made structures blocking fish movements and invasive alien species such as American crayfish and mink.

4. Unsustainable abstraction currently affects one third of catchments. The Environment Agency's Catchment Abstraction Management Strategies (CAMS) show that there are areas under pressure from abstraction right across England and Wales.  15% of CAMS units are classified as over-abstracted (existing abstraction causing unacceptable damage to the environment at low flows) and 18% are classified as over- licensed (if licences were fully utilised it may cause unacceptable damage at low flows). There is particular water stress in the south and east of England, where rainfall is lower and population density and per capita consumption is highest. Climate change and increasing demand for water, due to population and lifestyle change, are likely to increase the pressure on rivers from abstraction.

5. Visit www.ourrivers.org.uk to support the campaign

For more information contact:
Alicia Doherty, Communications Manager (Freshwater), 07917 000 595
Rowan Walker, WWF media officer (01483) 412 387/07986 463767

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