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River Cam in crisis: Charity outlines need for action now

A Cambridgeshire charity has called on developers, water companies and environment agencies to help safeguard the future of the River Cam.

The Cam Valley Forum, a not-for-profit charitable association of individuals with environmental and recreational links, has released a manifesto warning that all is not well with the city’s river.

It urges councils, planners, water companies, the Environment Agency, farmers, landowners and developers of the dire need to protect a river that is running dry by curbing water abstraction and introducing improved management.

Stephen Tompkin at Jesus lock re river drying up. Picture: Keith Heppell. (15664691)
Stephen Tompkin at Jesus lock re river drying up. Picture: Keith Heppell. (15664691)

The move comes after the Environment Agency’s monthly report for July classified the river’s flow rate as “exceptionally low” for the fifth consecutive month and the lowest recorded since 1949.

Parts of the Cam around Cambridge have only 30 per cent of normal average flow for this time of year. The manifesto warns: “The River Cam does not have enough water flow to function properly.”

And it suggests: “We are already well beyond the water resource limits for Cambridge – given the growth that is projected and now under way. The water resources are not adequate for such consumption, let alone the additional population planned to be moving into the area in coming decades,” says the report.

The Cambridge region is one of the driest in the country, but the forum says it is abstraction that is the biggest cause of the problem.

Stephen Tomkins, chair of the forum, told the Cambridge Independent: “If you look at Cambridge rainfall and compare it to, let’s say, the Cotswolds or somewhere like Manchester, you will find we have got half of what they’ve got and probably a fifth of what they have in Scotland.

“It is an extremely water poor area. People visit the river for boating, fishing, its environment and wildlife. Rainfall levels have been falling for 40 years in one of Britain’s driest areas where farmers and people need water. We get fantastically good water from the Cambridge Water company and the reason it is so good is because it comes from the chalk.

“The Cam is a chalk stream but we have been abstracting water from our chalk in Cambridge for quite a long time, more than 100 years, and we managed with one pumping station up until 1950. Since then we’ve been using more and more boreholes. There are limits to carrying on the way we are carrying on.

“We need to make our water system more resilient. You could have more reservoirs which would save winter water. But the trouble with that is the cost and the take up of valuable land which we don’t want to lose.

“Water abstraction is not a right, it is a privilege and if the privilege abuses the chalk streams that we have, you should stop doing it.”

Anglian Water, meanwhile, says Grafham Water reservoir, which supplies much of Cambrigeshire, is 88 per cent full and ground water aquifers are at 50 per cent volume.

“Anglian Water is a good water company, as is Cambridge Water Company, but we are in between a rock and a hard place because companies are obliged to supply water to customers by law,” says Stephen, who was director of studies for biological sciences and head of science faculty at Homerton College.

“The Environment Agency is required to licence the abstraction of water. No-one can take water out of the ground without permission – farmers have to ask permission and water companies do also. The agency is also responsible for the care of our environment so if we are going to have a lot more houses and development, and if we are going to have a less reliable rainfall because of climate change, you cannot go on as we are. We are just flagging up the problem.

“The crunch point in Britain is going to be in this area when it comes to water resources. If it is crunch time now then why shouldn’t Cambridge lead the way in new developments?

“I don’t want to get into a blame game because that won’t do us any good. The Environment Agency understands everything very well. They are good people, good scientists, but they are civil servants and are really strapped. Cambridge Water Company acts very responsibly and is supportive of river groups that want to do things and have been incredibly supportive about getting rid of floating pennywort for example. So have the Environment Agency and Anglian Water.

“What we need to do is decide what we are going to do. Cambridge has got loads of brilliant people in it and I think we can afford to do something better. Why does Cambridge have a poorly rated river? It should be leading the way.

“Are we too busy lecturing other people around the world about ‘saving rainforests’ when our own river is not what it could be? The Cam, in this university city of world standing, should surely be an example to the world of achieving sustainable development.”

Among the manifesto’s suggestions are considering whether the Environment Agency can realistically be the body that is both obliged to licence water abstraction and protect the environment. It also proposes a compulsory building regulation requirement for ‘grey water’ use in this water stressed area. Eddington, the University of Cambridge’s new sustainable development at North West Cambridge, is held up as an example of good practice here.

An Anglian Water spokesperson said: “We take our responsibilities to the environment very seriously. The quality of the treated water from our Water Recycling Centre at Cambridge meets very high standards, which are tightly regulated by the Environment Agency. This treated water also significantly contributes to the amount of flow in the River Cam –particularly during dry periods – helping to protect species within the river and support the surrounding environment.”

Chalk streams are a rare and threatened ecosystem. They have a very special fauna and flora and are celebrated for their clear unpolluted water.

Three quarters of the chalk streams in Europe are in southern England. Of the 200 national chalk streams, just three – the Rhee, the southern Cam and the Granta – contribute the greatest river flow, uniting upstream of Cambridge.

The manifesto says only a few small streams have breeding brown trout populations.

Some 62 per cent of the Cambridge chalk groundwater that is pumped is taken for our water supplies. But additionally, 20 per cent of the Cambridge chalk groundwater is also pumped each year from the same sources into groundwater support, mostly in the drier summer months.

The flora of the River Cam, and of the wetlands around Cambridge, have declined markedly, with 35 per cent of the wetland species recorded over three past centuries lost.

Recently, the non-native floating pennywort has dominated the Cam, thriving on the polluted nutrient rich waters, to the exclusion of much else.

The Cambridge milk parsley, a locally rare plant in Britain is now only holding on in only two or three county conservation wetland sites.

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “Between May 2018 and May 2019, the Cam catchment has seen just 70 per cent of long-term average rainfall. This is the period required to recharge the groundwater which provides base flow to the Cam in the summer and is predominantly why we are currently seeing low flows. The rain in June and so far in August will help temporarily but we are unlikely to see any significant recharge until later in the year.

“Abstraction does exert a pressure on groundwater but it also provides essential water for the public, agriculture and industry. The balance has to be right if we’re to ensure there’s enough water for everyone and the environment. We work hard to maintain that balance."

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