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Government help promised for Cambridge region’s globally-rare chalk streams

South Cambridgeshire could be declared a “water-stressed area” as government help is promised to save the Cambridge region’s globally-rare chalk streams.

The creation of the first new reservoir seen in Britain since the 1970s is also under consideration to reduce the need for water abstraction, which is having a devastating impact on this precious habitat.

Images from the Greater Cambridge chalk streams project report
Images from the Greater Cambridge chalk streams project report

The government has created a Chalk Streams Working Group to tackle the issues seen here, following pressure from South Cambridgeshire MP Anthony Browne, Water Resources East (WRE) and the Cam Valley Forum.

Mr Browne said: “Our chalk streams are special habitats that are very rare, very beautiful and very threatened, and form a well-loved part of the environment in South Cambridgeshire.

“I used to love playing in them as a child, and it would be unforgivable if we didn’t preserve them for future generations. The government’s fast action in creating the Chalk Streams Working Group is a great first step towards restoring these precious habitats.

“It is fantastic that with the support of the government and its agencies that so much progress is being made so quickly in giving protection the chalk streams need. But housing growth and climate change make it an uphill struggle, and it will take quite a few years to have a noticeable impact. I will not stop fighting for our chalk streams until they are saved.”

The progress comes as the Greater Cambridge Chalk Streams Project Report warns that “very few of our chalk streams are in good condition”.

The report, commissioned by Cambridge City Council and Cambridge Water, warns that they typically suffer from low flow and poor water quality, but notes that action can be taken to improve them.

Anthony Browne, MP for South Cambridgeshire. Picture: Keith Heppell
Anthony Browne, MP for South Cambridgeshire. Picture: Keith Heppell

In their healthy state, chalk streams are incredibly clear and rich in wildlife. But over-abstraction of water to serve the Cambridge region’s growing population, and below-average rainfall for several winters, which has affected the groundwater recharge, has left many of these streams and village ponds running dry. Despite the flooding seen in the county recently, groundwater levels have been at record lows in recent years.

Mr Browne, WRE and the Cam Valley Forum wrote to the water minister Rebecca Pow to propose a rescue plan and, following meetings with her, government officials and the Environment Agency, a number of measures were agreed:

  • The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has launched the Chalk Streams Working Group.
  • The Environment Agency is assessing South Cambridgeshire to considers elevating its status to a “water-stressed area”, which would lead to a more rapid roll-out of smart meters and promote water conservation.
  • Defra is laying the regulatory framework for creating new reservoirs, while the WRE, the Cam Valley Forum and Mr Browne consider proposals for a new reservoir in the region.
  • The MP has encouraged Defra ministers and officials to ensure that the new Environmental Land Management Scheme, replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy subsidies, provides financial incentives for farmers to adopt practices that reduce abstraction and protect chalk streams.

Mr Browne said he is also urging regulator Ofwat to use its power to require water companies to protect chalk streams and is calling for Natural England to designate them as threatened habitats, giving them legal protections, and boosting the Environment Agency’s powers to preserve them.

The Tory MP also called on Cllr Bridget Smith, the Liberal Democrat leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, to encourage her to commit the local authority to ensuring new house-building does not lead to greater water abstraction.

The MP, who is vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Chalk Streams, thanked WRE and Cam Valley Forum for their work and said: “The next step is to ensure our area is classed as ‘water-stressed’, allowing the Environment Agency greater scope to work with water companies to tackle water consumption. This is vital if South Cambridgeshire continues to grow at the current rate.”

Kingfishers are among the species that benefit from healthy chalk streams
Kingfishers are among the species that benefit from healthy chalk streams

Robin Prince, managing director of WRE, added: “Over the next three years Water Resources East will be co-creating a regional water management plan for Eastern England, with stakeholders including water companies, local authorities, farmers and landowners, community and environmental groups and regulators.

“Like others, we understand that the high economic ambition that this area has cannot be delivered at the expense of the environment, particularly the iconic chalk stream landscape which surrounds the city of Cambridge.

“Our role will be to bring all interested parties together to plan for the future, including planning for the major investment in new water infrastructure which will be required if this area is to meet its economic and environmental ambitions, particularly in the face of a changing climate. This will take some time, and so the most immediate step that we can all take to preserve our precious chalk streams is to think carefully about how much water we use – everyone has a part to play in ensuring that none of this precious resource is wasted.”

Stephen Tomkins, chairman of the Cam Valley Forum, added: “These internationally-important natural assets must be safeguarded now and for the future.”

Cam Valley Forum members work on pennywort clearance from the upper Cam
Cam Valley Forum members work on pennywort clearance from the upper Cam

Last week, Liberal Democrats in Cambridge called for measures to reduce water consumption across the city’s 7,000 council homes as part of an amendment to next year’s housing budget.

And the Green Party welcomed the publication of the chalk streams project report, which featured findings from the Wildlife Trust BCN and the Wild Trout Trust.

“We need to make major changes to how we abstract, store and manage water as a city,” said Hannah Charlotte Copley, Cambridge Green Party’s city council candidate for Abbey ward.

‘Our version of the rainforests’

There are only about 200 chalk streams in the world – and they are all found in England and northern France due to their geology.

Mainly spring-fed watercourses that rise from a chalk aquifer, they rely on rainwater percolating slowly through the chalk to the water table.

This groundwater moves through the chalk bedrock, emerging at springs.

The newly-published Greater Cambridge Streams Project Report explains: “The filtering and purifying action of the chalk means that water from chalk springs is characteristically ‘gin clear’, mineral-rich, slightly alkaline, with a relatively stable flow. The stream bed is generally made up of flint gravel, because chalk geology contains flint deposits, with very little clay or sand.

Images from the Greater Cambridge chalk streams project report
Images from the Greater Cambridge chalk streams project report

“The unique and diverse ecology of chalk streams makes them a globally rare, and globally important, habitat. It could be argued that chalk streams are our local equivalent of rainforests.”

Since they are fed mainly from an underground aquifer, they have a stable temperature of about 10C all year around. Their unique characteristics support plants such as water-crowfoot, lesser water parsnip and water starwort, a diverse collection of invertebrates and fish such as brown trout, animals like water voles and predators such as kingfisher and otter.

In the upper reaches of the Cam, chalk streams include the River Granta, Cherry Hinton Brook, Coldham’s Brook, the River Shep, Orwell Stream and Hauxton Riddy, among others.

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