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Cam Valley Water water crisis: Anthony Browne MP calls for government task force

A new government task force should be set up to tackle the “intense” pressure on water resources in the Cam Valley region, according to South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne.

In a letter seen by the Cambridge Independent, he urges the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to support the major infrastructure investment needed to reduce levels of water abstraction in the area from the chalk aquifer.

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

A new reservoir could be built, he suggests, while more should be done to encourage water efficiency and ensure households have water meters installed.

The Tory MP’s letter to Rebecca Pow MP, the parliamentary under secretary of state for Defra, follows a meeting he held with her and members of the Cam Valley Forum, Water Resources East and Cambridge Water.

He writes: “East Anglia has the least rainfall in the UK, and within that my constituency of South Cambridgeshire has the most rapidly growing population, putting greater pressure on natural resources. Water shortages and the low water level are now so acute that in the summer months the chalk streams routinely run dry, the River Cam regularly dries up in its upper reaches and village ponds across the constituency are empty.

“I grew up in the village of Fowlmere, which is named after its bird marshes that have been there for a thousand years. It is now an RSPB reserve, but the fresh water springs now often stop, leaving baked mud which is completely inhospitable to water birds. This drying up of our natural water features is detrimental to quality of life and extremely damaging for wildlife. It has become an issue of major local public and political concern.”

The Environment Agency warned last month that the Cam and Ely Ouse river catchments were heading for a drought, following the fourth driest spring in East Anglia since records began. Just 51mm of rainfall fell in the East of England from March to May – 36 per cent of the long-term average.

While climate change could have a significant impact on the region’s water resources, Mr Browne’s letter suggests increasing abstraction is at the route of the “chronic” problems seen in our chalk streams.

The River Cam in Cambridge
The River Cam in Cambridge

“That 14 augmentation boreholes have been put in place since the 1990s to support flows in some 30 streams illustrates the scale and long-standing nature of the problem,” he says.

“All of us share a concern to tackle the impacts of water abstraction from the chalk aquifer on the water environment in the Cam Valley. With housebuilding due to accelerate sharply in South Cambridgeshire, the pressures on our water resources are going to get even more intense.”

A report by The Cam Valley Forum, a voluntary group, recently called on a reduction in abstraction and suggested a new reservoir may be needed to help with supplies.

Mr Browne puts those ideas forward in his letter, saying: “It is clear that we will need to find alternative sources of water to replace direct abstraction from the aquifer. That could include building a reservoir to capture and store winter flows downstream of Cambridge, tapping in to water transfers from elsewhere, and improving the quality of treated wastewater, so that it can be used to recharge the aquifer, or to replace water abstracted by others (eg for irrigation).

“I am pleased that Water Resources East is considering all these options as part of its current planning work. We look to the government to support what is potentially a major infrastructure investment.”

But those are longer-term solutions, and Mr Browne points out that there are “immediate concerns about continued high domestic consumption this summer”.

He notes: “Every time the chalk aquifer fails to recharge over the winter (as it has failed to do in 24 of the last 59 years) my constituents are going to worry about the impact on their local watercourses.”

He urges the creation of a Defra Chalk Streams Task Force to develop and oversee a chalk streams strategy, designed to ensure chalk streams flow naturally.

This task force would support planning bodies, statutory agencies and voluntary groups in “removing barriers barriers to action to reduce damaging abstraction from chalk aquifers, restore natural flows, find alternative water sources, and tackle pollution and habitat modifications”.

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

Mr Browne adds: “It would help ensure that we meet our international commitments to safeguard these globally rare and fragile environmental assets. The Cam Valley should be viewed as a test catchment, perhaps one of several, in which new approaches could be trialled.”

The Cam Valley Forum and Water Resources East have drawn up eight detailed actions for the task force, which cover:

  • 1. Actively promoting water efficiency
  • 2. Promoting shifts in land use and management to safeguard the water environment
  • 3. Supporting collaborative integrated water management planning through regional groups, including the development of new strategic supply options such as reservoirs.
  • 4. Going further and faster on metering
  • 5. Going further and faster to reduce leakage
  • 6. Amending water company service levels
  • 7. Amending water company drought trigger levels
  • 8. Integrating the drought response framework into water company drought plans.

A spokesperson for Defra said: “We share the Cam Valley Forum’s concerns about the health of our precious chalk streams, particularly from the pressures posed by abstraction. We have published the National Framework for Water Resources which calls for abstractors to reduce the amount they take from vulnerable habitats such as chalk streams by moving to more sustainable sources in the future. Water Resources East is also exploring a range of options to secure the water supply for the East of England, including Cambridge.”

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