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Water company forum divided about Cambridge's development



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Environment Agency map shows Cambridge is approaching water shortage situation - the only place in the country to be so affected
Environment Agency map shows Cambridge is approaching water shortage situation - the only place in the country to be so affected

A report on the looming dangerously low levels of water on the river Cam will be published next year following the first meeting of the water crisis forum at Guildhall last week.

The meeting discussed issues arising from over-abstraction from the chalk hills surrounding Cambridge, and reduced river flow following years of low rainfall.

Cllr Katie Thornburrow (Trumpington), executive councillor, planning policy and open spaces at Cambridge City Council, chaired the meeting.

“I’m really pleased that we were able to bring together a such a wide range of experts to share their research and insights with us,” said Cllr Thornburrow this week. “It’s clear that we need to take action if we are to be able to provide homes and businesses with the water they need while also preserving our irreplaceable natural environment especially the chalk streams of Cambridgeshire. We’ll be reviewing all the submissions and answers to our questions, and plan to publish a report later this year.”

Dan Clark, water resources manager at Cambridge Water, said: “We were very pleased to be invited to join the Water Forum convened by Cllr Thornburrow, it was a really useful opportunity to discuss water issues and concerns in the Cambridge area and to have a number of different views heard. In particular we are always eager to hear what our customers have to say, so their views can inform our future plans. The Forum allowed us to explain some of our duties around managing water supply and the environment, including in times of drought.

“We produce water management plans every five years, these include options we can use in a drought to ensure that we maintain customers’ water supply. They identify what additional supplies may be required, what environmental impact these might have, together with when it is appropriate to impose restrictions on customers’ use of water. We also include how to communicate the situation to our customers with water efficiency messages.

“Water is a precious resource and we encourage our customers to use it wisely, especially in times of drought when savings in water consumption means less water needs to be taken from the environment. Abstracting less from the environment will help to maintain the health of chalk streams so we are reducing leakage and aim to abstract no additional water to meet the expected population growth in Cambridge. For longer-term growth we are working collaboratively on regional plans to increase supplies whilst improving the environment. We offer online advice in conserving water by using water wisely.”

Extinction Rebellion's Red Rebels Brigade protest the condition of the river Cam. Picture: Jeremy Peters
Extinction Rebellion's Red Rebels Brigade protest the condition of the river Cam. Picture: Jeremy Peters

One of the members of the public at the meeting was Monica Bijok, who told the Cambridge Independent: “This is very much the beginning of a process, and it was good to see so many interested parties coming together as well as political representatives from all political parties and all Cambridgeshire councils. I am hopeful that politicians, developers, water companies will at last start to understand what they are about to destroy.

“I have now heard versions of Stephen Tomkins' presentation three times since last month. I have to admire his patience, his perseverance, and his dogged optimism when talking about the dire situation of the Cam, the Granta, and the other chalk streams in what could be the last couple of years of their existence.

“Rob Mungovan of the wild trout trust spoke with deep knowledge and a real passion for all the precious and unique plants and animals that have evolved in our local chalk streams, and with despair at how they are struggling to survive, yet somehow still, in places, hanging on at the mercy of a pump. He said the thought of a power cut gives him sleepless nights knowing so many little interconnected lives depend totally on those pumps operating.”

Water is a vital resource, here's how we use it
Water is a vital resource, here's how we use it

Another attendee, Rosanna Bienzobas, added: “Having spoken with each of the councillors in the coffee break and given them my views on development needing to be paused or slowed to allow chalk streams and their ecosystems to recover and asked their views, Graham Hone did not want to contemplate this, Rod Cantrill’s view was that development could be continued, but in a more sustainable way - hard to imagine how when we have a water crisis caused by supplying water to current population - and Katie Thornburrow’s view is that there is lots to think about in the light of the evidence heard at the meeting, but local plans were going ahead.”

Cllr Graham Cone (Con, Fen Ditton & Fulbourn), said: “The meeting went fine with lots of interesting points raised about the water courseway and chalk streams, and why the flow is not as good as it should be. A cross-party report involving the LibDems, Labour and Consertavies is due, obviously there’s a general election due so realistically it's going to be next year.

“From my own personal view we do need more housing as the region is a growing economy and there’s a need for more homes in this area, but when building homes we need to be careful not to draw too much water - the rate of house builds is probably too slow as it is.”

Cllr Rod Cantrill with Jo Swinson, current leader of the Liberal Democrats. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cllr Rod Cantrill with Jo Swinson, current leader of the Liberal Democrats. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cllr Rod Cantrill (Newnham) responded: “The worry I have is that if you’ve seen the Environment Agency report for aquifers, you’ll see that we’ve almost touched the critical level - and below that means water shortages. We need 160 per cent of the usual rainfall to get back to a decent level.

“We now need to consider the evidence, we've got some analysis upfront and we had new analysis in the session, if we can do the report in a month that's great but we need a realistic timeframe.

“The reduction of carbon emissions by using the natural capital offset programme is not convincing. Lots of developers have been getting around it. But given that the housing market in the city is broken, it’s unrealistic to say that we’re not going to grow.”

Punting on the river Cam is just one of the activities that are under threat from a water crisis
Punting on the river Cam is just one of the activities that are under threat from a water crisis


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