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The water supply system is broken - and political leaders must take this crisis seriously, warns Cam Valley Forum

Stephen Tomkins, of the Cam Valley Forum, writes an open letter to political leaders about water.

Stephen Tomkins
Stephen Tomkins

Local people, and our own supporters, have been keeping an eye on and monitoring the health of our River Cam for some years.

So it is good to see, in the Cambridge Independent, that all our MPs, and all our councillors pretty much, recognise that the genuine sustainability of our water supply is a pivotal condition for any development at all. This is good progress as even three years ago there was little recognition of the ecological reality.

Central government for a decade has weakened its own environmental regulators to cut its own costs. Very few environmental offences are brought to book. Infrastructural change in the water industry has also been grossly neglected.

Alternative water sources, such as new reservoirs, needed planning and execution many years ago; we shall not see any respite on that until 2035.

In consequence we are still living with an ecologically unsustainable water supply system. It is already broken. Without very firm pro-environmental regulation by our local leaders now awakened to the issue, the position is likely to worsen and not improve.

The weaknesses of our inherited system were made clear enough to one former environment secretary, Liz Truss (2014-16) but she, and others no doubt, wanted more development here around Cambridge for the benefit of the national economy.

Cambridge (that is us) are still ripping off our natural capital assets and not taking the problem nearly seriously enough.

[Read more: Tread Lightly - How to save vital water in the garden]

The challenge is not new. The ongoing water crisis was first recognised locally in the 1960s, then again in the great 1970s droughts and in the ’80s when ‘augmentation’ began.

It is certainly little known by your readers that 20 per cent of chalk ground water abstracted locally is already pumped into our streams and rivers in the summer months just to protect their flows. This augmentation, as it is called, has helped to keep our few chalk streams and wetlands alive, but even that sticking plaster is failing to keep up with a combination of climate change and our own tap water demands.

Cam Valley Forum at work clearing Pennywort from the upper Cam
Cam Valley Forum at work clearing Pennywort from the upper Cam

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.

The whole Cam catchment chalk aquifer is additionally supplying 100 megalitres of water every day just to feed our domestic supplies.

To picture this demand, this volume is sufficient to fill 40 Olympic swimming pools every single day. In hot weather that demand always increases.

[Read more: Tread Lightly - How to save water and money]

Last year the Environment Agency asked for a 60 to 70 per cent cut in this level of abstraction to sustain river flows adequately. But our local water companies are in a tight spot as they are both totally chalk aquifer dependent and contractually obligated by government to supply any new development and are licensed to do so.

The companies – Cambridge Water, Affinity Water and Anglian Water – are rightly begging us to cut back on usage, and ‘value every drop’, but without greater incentive most of us will not do enough to significantly reduce our collective impact.

What is needed now is political leadership to dramatically change the situation we are all in. Our former chief scientist, Professor Sir David King, advised a recent meeting in Cambridge that no development should occur without first assuring us that it included environmental well-being. That is certainly something we have not had for decades.

Please follow well-founded scientific argument! Be sure that if you cheat on nature then nature in the end will cheat on you.

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