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Alarm at state of Cambridgeshire’s rivers with rainfall at a record low and rising demand on water supply

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The alarm has been sounded over the state of our rivers, amid a combination of very low rainfall, high levels of abstraction and rising demand from developments.

The Cam Valley Forum voluntary group has urged the government to get to grips with the water crisis in East Anglia, which is historically one of the driest regions of the country.

The River Cam at Waterbeach
The River Cam at Waterbeach

This morning (Friday, August 5), low river levels were recorded at 38 out of 144 locations for which there was Environment Agency data in Cambridgeshire. All four monitoring stations for the Cam showed low levels. The water level at the River Granta at Stapleford – which can reach up to 1.02m at the top of its ‘normal’ range – was just 5cm. At Linton, which is deemed normal at up to 74cm, it was also just 5cm, and was recently as low as 2cm.

The low levels have prompted Stephen Tomkins, chair of the Cam Valley Forum, to warn: “The Granta ran completely dry at Stapleford in summer 2019 and may do so again this year.

“We really need a much greater local organisation of environmental water resilience, in our low rainfall area, to cope with these now-normal ‘droughts’.

“Currently, the soil moisture deficit - which needs wetting up fully for any sustainable abstraction system to work at all - is right off the scale. We are desperate for rain.”

A concerted effort is needed, he argued, to reduce our reliance on abstraction and manage demand.

“What is needed now is political leadership to dramatically change the situation we are all in,” he said.

Stephen Tomkins, of the Cam Valley Forum
Stephen Tomkins, of the Cam Valley Forum

Water companies, meanwhile, continue to abstract water from the natural source of the chalk aquifer to feed demand that has risen amid the hot weather.

And with nearly 49,000 new homes expected to be built in the Greater Cambridge region alone over the next 20 years, and the ever-increasing impact of climate change, there is widespread concern that the situation is unsustainable.

For their part, Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council have warned that the level of development proposed in the next Local Plan will not be deliverable without a major change in water infrastructure.

Anthony Browne, South Cambridgeshire’s Conservative MP, warns the current plans would represent a “death warrant” for our waterways.

He said: “South Cambridgeshire’s waterways face a battle on all sides. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to act while we can before the taps start to run dry.

“I have visited the dried-up village ponds and seen first-hand our near-empty chalk streams, already early casualties in this war. Our farmers and wildlife rely on such water, as do our taps and showers. A continuing decline would have a stark impact on our local economy, the livelihoods of local people and the availability of local produce and wildlife.

“That’s why I was glad to work with the Cam Valley Forum and Water Resources East to start the fightback. We now have a Chalk Streams Taskforce to bring national attention to these precious local resources, and my campaign to get Cambridgeshire designated as ‘water-stressed’ has been successful.

Anthony Browne MP. Picture: Keith Heppell.
Anthony Browne MP. Picture: Keith Heppell.

“In a speech on the Environment Bill, I challenged the government to use every new power at their disposal to protect our waterways.

“But this all pales in comparison to the massive housebuilding coming to our area. 49,000 new houses and flats – the equivalent of building another city of Cambridge in our area alone. If the draft Local Plan is approved in its current form, both councils are signing a death warrant for all our waterways, including the Cam. It would be unforgivable to sacrifice our waterways and water supply in pursuit of an irresponsible housebuilding agenda.”

[Read more: Cherry Hinton Brook repair work shows value of protecting chalk streams]

Cllr Katie Thornburrow, executive councillor for planning and infrastructure at Cambridge City Council, has defended the Local Plan process.

She recently said: “Protecting our precious water supplies is of course a key concern for the council. The emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan will set out how Greater Cambridge will develop over the next 20 years, creating strong policies to address climate change and secure biodiversity improvement. The evidence clearly shows that the strength of the Greater Cambridge economy means we will need more homes in the decades ahead, and we cannot ignore that evidence. However, the first proposals for the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan explicitly set out that the plans are entirely dependent on water supply being available without unacceptable environmental harm.

Cllr Katie Thornburrow. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Katie Thornburrow. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We have long said that our strategy is dependent on improvements to that supply – such as new reservoirs – being achieved, and in time to support new development. We continue to make our case to government and the water industry to take decisive action in this area.”

[Read more: Water supply highlighted as key to major development in Local Plan consultation]

An Anglian Water spokesperson told the Cambridge Independent: “We have reduced our levels of abstraction to protect the environment, due to low river flows, but demand for water is higher than usual.

“On a normal day, we supply roughly 1.1 billion litres of top-quality drinking water to our 4.3 million customers across the East of England, but as temperatures peaked at over 40 degrees, so did the demand for water. We exceeded a record breaking 1.6 billion litres – a 37 per cent increase, and more water than we’ve ever treated and sent to customers’ taps before.”

The company said it manages for demand, has an “industry-leading leakage reduction programme” and will have installed 1.1 million smart meters by 2025.

“We are also working to increase the supply of water available to our customers, to keep taps flowing and toilets flushing into the future.

“This includes a new major strategic pipeline, hundreds of kilometres long, which will move water from wetter parts of our region down to drier areas. We are also planning two new reservoirs, in the Fens and South Lincolnshire,” said the spokesperson.

Half of the water in the East of England comes from the surface –rivers and reservoirs – with the rest from groundwater sources.

But the region desperately needs rainfall. The last eight months have been the driest since 1976 and last month the Environment Agency announced the East was now in “prolonged dry weather” status.

Katie Martyr, horticultural assistant and weather reader at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, checks the temperature. It reached a Cambridge record of 39.9C on July 19, 2022. Picture: Keith Heppell
Katie Martyr, horticultural assistant and weather reader at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, checks the temperature. It reached a Cambridge record of 39.9C on July 19, 2022. Picture: Keith Heppell

In addition to record-breaking temperatures last month, it was the driest July in England since 1935, and the driest July on record in East Anglia, south-east and southern England, according to provisional statistics from the Met Office.

East Anglia received just 11 per cent of its usual rainfall for July - a paltry 5.4mm.

The soil moisture deficit – a measure comparing the amount of water actually in the soil with the amount it could hold – has been declared as “exceptionally high”.

Some water companies have imposed a ban on using hosepipes, but Anglian Water has no plans to at this stage.

“Despite a very dry year so far, our reservoir levels are stable, at around 80 per cent full, and our groundwater sources are in good shape too, so we’re not currently planning any hosepipe bans,” the Anglian Water spokesperson confirmed.

Meanwhile, Anglian Water has begun sharing its allocated water resources from the River Nene with nearby farmers to enable them to take extra water for their crops, as well as helping maintain levels in the RSPB Lower Nene Washes. It will take less water from the river for drinking water under the exchange, first trialled in 2018.

It will provide 25 million litres of water a day – equivalent to the domestic use of 150,000 customers – “which will be available for local farmers to use from the south and east of Peterborough over to the north of Cambridge,” said the spokesperson.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We are working very closely with water companies and other abstractors to protect water resources and take pre-cautionary actions to ensure the needs of the environment and water users are met.

“Water companies are also enacting their drought plans where needed as a routine precaution to maintain water supply. We can all do our part to use water wisely, reduce our usage and manage this precious resource.”

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