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Feargal Sharkey: 'The Cam is no longer a proper river'

Pop singer Feargal Sharkey is set to lead a debate on how to save the River Cam from environmental disaster if Cambridge’s growth agenda spirals out of control.

He is the guest of a host of environmental groups in the city who are running a live webinar discussing with the star’s campaigning work to save Britain’s rivers.

Feargal spoke with the Cambridge Independent about the dangers of building more houses in a region where water supplies are already under pressure and how it could destroy one of the world’s most unique habitats.

Feargal Sharkey (43268962)
Feargal Sharkey (43268962)

He said: “The River Cam and its tributaries are part of an incredibly rare system of rivers called chalk streams. There are just 225 on the whole planet and about 85 percent of them are to be found in the south east and south of England. So when you are looking at the River Cam and its tributaries you are looking at quite a high percentage of an incredibly rare global ecosystem. And yet the cam and its tributaries are now over-abstracted and poisoned by phosphates.”

Over abstraction means simply taking too much water out of the river’s source - the underground natural reservoir of the chalk aquifer - dramatically reducing its flow.

“We have taken so much water out of these rivers there is not a single chalk stream in good overall environmental condition and the south east of England is now running out of water,” says Feargal.

“London is now on a list of the top ten cities in the world most likely to run out of drinking water. We are on a list with Cape Town Jakarta Sao Paulo. How the hell did this happen?

“It's very simple and it's not my opinion it just is fact. The south east of England is now running out of water. These rivers have nothing left to give. You have had it all. The Cam is already going. It is already not a proper river.”

He will be talking at the event organised by the Cambridge Labour Party Environment Forum (CLEF), the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations (FECRA), CPRE Cambs and Peterborough, Cambridge Friends of the Earth (CamFOE) and the Cambridge Eco Schools Council, because the River Cam is one of the river worst affected by over abstraction.

Without water being pumped into the River Cam, this scene would be very different.
Without water being pumped into the River Cam, this scene would be very different.

He says: “As an example, at the beginning of this year in all of that rain in February and March and April the River Cam was the the only river in England still being recorded as exceptionally low flows. It was down to something like 46 percent of its average flow.

“So the truth is if we want to respect the environment in any way shape or form we are going to have to start paying very careful consideration to where we get our water from.”

At the moment our local drinking water comes from the chalk aquifer beneath Cambridgeshire, which is a source of exceptionally pure water. But the water level of the River Cam and Granta has fallen so low that water companies have to pump extra water out of the aquifer to supplement the river flow, as well as put treated wastewater into the river.

“What a ridiculous idea” says Feargal.

“When you have over abstracted a chalk stream somebody comes up with a brilliant notion, ‘Oh we will drill another bore hole. We will abstract even more water out of the aquifer and pump that into the top of these rivers to make it look like they are still behaving like natural rivers,' and even that scheme implemented in the 1980s has now clearly failed.”

Commenting on proposals in the emerging Local Plan which will come into effect in 2023 and will set the level of house building for the next 20 years, he said: “If someone is going to build 67,000 new homes, where is the water coming from? Because it does not exist in East Anglia right now.

“You only have to ask two very simple questions that everybody is desperately trying to avoid asking. Where is the water coming from and what are you doing with the sewage?

“Here's the thing - you are not going to have 67,000 extra houses without water and without a means of disposing of the sewage. But right now nobody seems capable or prepared to even confront or ask those two questions.”

Currently the River Cam’s environmental status is only recorded by the Environment Agency as ‘moderate’ in spite of it’s special status as a chalk stream.

“One of the things that makes chalk streams so unique is this incredible filtration process. Because of that massive chalk layer the rain filters through that layer of chalk that runs across southern England and that filter process can take anything from weeks and months to decades.

“That behaves as the best water filter on the planet and the water collects in massive underground reservoirs called aquifers. The water finally leaks out through little cracks in the chalk and bubbles out as springs releasing the cleanest, finest, purest water on the planet. It has a perfect PH of 7 and it should come out at a constant temperature of 10 degrees.

The River Cam.
The River Cam.

“It should be the healthiest ecosystem on the planet but it is failing to reach good status because of over abstraction and sewage pollution.”

The pop star said he had become interested in the health of rivers after being a keen fisherman all his life. He said: "I have always had an interest in fly fishing going back to being a ten year old boy living in Ireland, that is a lifetime passion but over the last 20 years I have been standing on the banks of these rivers watching them decline and knowing something was wrong but not being able to identify what was happening.

"People should be absolutely angry about this situation. If people genuinely want to take their children to see a chalk stream in a healthy sustainable state right now in Cambridge you already cannot do that. Because the Environment Agency has already owned up that the River Cam and its tributaries are in a declining state. They are in the process of being drained dry and the remains of them filled full of sewage."

The Environment Agency explained that sewage works were designed to allow some sewage overflow into rivers. They said: “The sewage system is designed to overflow to relieve pressure on the system – discharges from Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are not a sign that the system is faulty or being misused.

“However, when companies do damage the environment whether it is through polluting our waters or breaching permit conditions, we will take enforcement action against them including civil sanctions.”

A spokesperson for the agency added: “Evidence shows that the current levels of abstraction are having a detrimental effect on the rivers within the Cambridge area. Any increase in abstraction will cause more pressure on water resources and further deteriorate the water environment.

Environment Agency River Cam (43290914)
Environment Agency River Cam (43290914)

“We are keen to ensure that the next stage of the strategy fully explores the feasibility of freeing up more water through large scale water efficiency and considers the risks to the environment if this is not achievable.

“We will continue to work closely with the water industry, Water Resources East and planning authorities to look at how growth could be resilient to climate change while being sustainable to people and wildlife.”

They added that 18% of chalk river water bodies are still impacted by unsustainable abstraction and that over the next five years they would be securing new abstraction licence changes from water companies.

"We have used our regulatory powers to secure new abstraction licence changes up to 2025 to help address this."

But, they stressed: “Abstraction regulation can only go so far. Longer-term solutions are dependent on finding alternative water supplies and reducing demand.”

Feargal will be encouraging viewers to write to their MP. he says: "Ask them to oin the all party parliamentary chalk stream group headed by Sir Charles Walker and secondly get in contact with Philip Dunn who is the chair of the Environment Audit Committee in parliament. He has tabled a private members bill to demand and stop water companies dumping sewage into rivers "

One of the organisers of Feargal's talk is CLEF. Their chair, Sue Buckingham, said: "Our rivers are becoming casualties of the rampant, socially divisive and environmentally destructive growth that Cambridge and surrounding areas are experiencing.

"CLEF advocates action to address environmental emergencies and social inequality, and joins forces with local environmental and residents' groups to do this."

Hear Feargal talk online on Tuesday, December 8. Register for Save the Cam: Feargal Sharkey leads a debate on how to save our rivers on Eventbrite.co.uk.

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