Water Companies Draining U.K. Wetlands, Groups Say

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
February 3, 2004

By last October wildlife along the Wylye Valley in southern England was gasping for life following a long, hot summer. Yet fly fishermen who rescued many hundreds of brown trout from dried up tributary streams aren't blaming the weather.

Nor are environmentalists, wildlife groups, and even government agencies. They are pointing the finger at water companies, which they accuse of depriving England's rivers and wetlands of their lifeblood.

A recent World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report claims many vulnerable species are being put at risk because companies are siphoning off vast and environmentally unsustainable quantities of groundwater. It places England behind countries like Hungary and Bulgaria in terms of managing threatened wetland habitats.

Rob Oates, river and wetlands officer for WWF U.K., said: "There is little time to save these valuable habitats and prevent a massive loss of wetland flora and fauna. Endangered native species like white clawed crayfish could become extinct."

The situation in England echoes that in other European countries, says the report. It judged that water policies focussed on increasing water availability, and not on managing and limiting demand. It also found that in 70 percent of the 22 countries surveyed wetland restoration policy was inadequate.

U.K. government agencies have identified over 500 wetland areas in England and Wales that are in danger of drying up due to over-abstraction by water companies.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Europe's largest wildlife conservation charity, says this loss of water has had a dramatic effect on wading birds over the last 20 years. It points to a 60 percent fall in snipe numbers, 40 percent fewer curlew, and a 20 percent reduction in redshank.

Criticism of England's water companies comes as they finalize their business plans for the next five years. These form part of a periodic review of water charges. Companies must balance customer bills with their statutory duty to conserve and enhance protected wetland habitats.

The Environment Agency (EA), responsible for ensuring the sustainable management of water resources in England and Wales, isn't impressed. Having reviewed their draft plans, it states: "Many companies have not included all or some of the programme of environmental improvements to abstraction of water that are necessary to meet their legal obligations."

Underground Springs

Southern England's chalk rivers are especially vulnerable to groundwater abstraction. Unlike rain-fed rivers, their flows rely on underground springs rising from chalk, a porous, alkaline rock.

Chalk rivers are prized both for their trout fishing, which attracts anglers from around the world, and the wetland wildlife they support. Found virtually nowhere else on Earth, the ecological importance of these rivers is reflected by their protected status. The majority are either SSSIs (Site of Special Scientific Interest) or SACs (Special Area of Conservation), a designation reserved for Europe's rarest and most vulnerable habitats.

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