Water Companies Draining U.K. Wetlands, Groups Say

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The River Wylye, in Wiltshire, is one of them. It forms part of the River Avon system, which boasts the most diverse fish population in the U.K. But the river is in a critical condition, according to the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust (WWT).

With flows at "emergency levels," WWT spokeswoman Sharon Charity says populations of water vole, Britain's most endangered mammal, and protected species such as the bullhead (a freshwater fish), Desmoulin's whorl snail, and white clawed crayfish are seriously threatened.

These concerns are echoed by the Wiltshire Fishery Association (WFA), which represents the region's chalk river fly fishermen. WFA committee member Jeremy Waters said: "If we don't get a huge amount of rain this winter then we won't get a recharge [of the chalk aquifers] and the river will go on looking like it does now. For any fisherman that's a horrifying prospect."

The WFA blames over-abstraction by Wessex Water for the Wylye's wasted condition. The company has boreholes positioned throughout the Wylye Valley which pump out tens of millions of liters each day.

Wessex Water admits there is a problem for chalk rivers in the region, stating, "Since the late Seventies increased abstraction to meet increased public demand started to noticeably affect the flows of rivers."

Like other water companies, Wessex Water says it would like to do more to tackle the problem but is constrained by the Office of Water Services (Ofwat), the independent industry regulator, which acts to ensure water companies offer "best value" to customers.

In 1999 Wessex Water proposed a 105 million ($U.S. 192 million) pipeline which would have pumped water from the mouth of the River Avon up to the Wylye Valley. But Ofwat rejected the scheme on the grounds it was too expensive.

"Hard Choices"

Again, during the current review, Ofwat indicates it intends to keep a tight reign on expenditure. Ofwat director general, Philip Fletcher, warns: "There will be hard choices to make if we are to limit the cost pressures faced by companies to those that can be appropriately financed, and to set price limits that are affordable."

Indeed, Wessex Water's draft business plan offers little hope of relief for the Wylye. This puts a figure on the work the EA says is needed over the next five years to tackle abstraction and low flows. It comes to 62 million ($U.S. 113 million). Yet the amount Wessex Water actually plans to spend is just 6 million ($U.S. 11 million).

Waters says Wylye fishermen shouldn't be surprised to see much of their river disappearing during summer months. He points to recent weather trends and climate change forecasts. For instance, by the 2020s the EA expects summer river flows in England to drop between 20 and 30 percent. During the same period water companies predict household water demand will rise 15 percent, while hundreds of thousands of new homes are due to be built in southern England by 2016.

Waters added: "The Wylye has become very much a test case. There's a shortage of water and we're not used to thinking in those terms."

"We've got this crisis affecting our wildlife and environment, yet our water is actually getting cheaper through the taps for the consumer," said Sharon Charity, of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. "It's time that people woke up to the true cost of water."

On a national scale, if all its environmental improvements affecting wetland habitats are implemented during the current review, the EA says expenditure would add just 50 pence (about one U.S. dollar) a week to the average household water bill.

Possible measures include new reservoirs, pipelines, and the installation of water meters in homes.

Water company plans must be finalized by April, then it's up to the U.K. Government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which has the final say on these plans. Environmentalists aren't holding their breath.

"Defra is presiding over a catastrophe of its own making," added Rob Oates. "Defra must ensure that water companies fund the five-year program of environmental improvements as proposed. This would cost bill payers on average the price of just one can of fizzy drinks per household per week."

It doesn't seem a high price to pay. Especially in the light of a new WWF study, published last week [Jan. 31], which suggests that in terms of amenity, flood control, sport fishing, water filtration and other functions, wetlands are worth $U.S. 70 billion annually to the global economy.

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