Thursday, May 26

The Battle to Save England’s Chalk Streams, One of the Rarest Habitats on the Planet | Rivers

CConservationist Allen Beechey recalls a time, in the 1990s, when trout swam along the Chess River as it meandered through the center of his hometown of Chesham. “It was a soothing and comforting sight and it helped spark my love of nature,” Beechey said last week.

Then the droughts came, the river dried up, sometimes for several years in a row, and the fish became extinct. They have yet to return to the town of Buckinghamshire.

But Beechey has a dream that one day the trout will return to this part of the river, which is one of the largest chalk streams in England. It would be a sign that this critically important but highly endangered habitat was regaining good health after years of damage from increasing water withdrawals and other threats.

Affinity Water's Jake Rigg, left, and Allen Beechey, along the River Chess.
Affinity Water’s Jake Rigg, left, and Allen Beechey, along the River Chess. Photograph: Robin McKie / The Observer

These hopes were recently raised when the local water company, Affinity, announced that it had stopped drawing water from the Chess. Previously, it extracted about 6 million liters a day from the river from two pumping stations in Chesham and Chartridge, a nearby town. This extraction has now stopped and water for the region is now channeled from other areas of southern England, including regions near the Thames.

“We have reconfigured our network to bring in water from elsewhere and while this costs a lot of money, we recognize that it is important to save this precious habitat,” said Jake Rigg, head of corporate and community affairs for Affinity Water.

Chalk streams are some of the rarest habitats on the planet and 85% of them are found in England. Of the 260 true chalk streams on Earth, 224 of them run through the English countryside, as listed in the WWF Chalk Streams Report on the State of England of 2014, a reflection of the geology of the nation and its temperate climate. (France has most of the other chalk streams, including the Somme.) These streams emerge from underground chalk aquifers and normally flow over beds of flint gravel. This ensures their cleanliness but also endows them with dissolved iron and magnesium minerals.

Aquatic plants like Flag Iris and Water Crowfoot thrive on its shores; yellow and sulfur green mayflies flourish in its ultra-clean waters; while otters, kingfishers and water voles make their homes there. They are the embodiment of the tranquility of the English countryside. By Kenneth Grahame Wind in the willows unfolds around a stream of chalk; Wordsworth, Rupert Brooke, and Tennyson expressed their love for them; while Sir John Betjeman wrote of one, the Kennett: “When the trout waved lazily in the clear streams of chalk, the glory was in me …”

But like other rare habitats, such as the rainforest and the coral reef, the Chalk Creek is also facing environmental threats, with two particular threats causing the greatest concern.

“First, companies trying to satisfy the nation’s growing thirst are draining water from chalk streams,” said Beechey, who manages the Chilterns Chalk Streams Project. “This process began in earnest in the 1970s, when more and more homes were being built and equipped with dishwashers, showers, washing machines and other appliances.”

These devices have helped drive a 70% increase in domestic water use since 1985 in the UK and as a result, withdrawal rates have skyrocketed across the country, including those from the aquifers in Chilterns, which is home to some of the best in the country. streams of chalk. This led to the drying up of rivers and streams that began in the 1990s and hit Chesham in 1997.

But abstraction is not the only problem. “There is also the impact of global warming that is causing more and more heat waves which in turn are helping to dry up streams,” added Rigg.

This threat is becoming a major concern after the Met Office recently warned that over the next five years there was now a 40% chance that global temperatures will reach 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial levels, the limit. higher than climate scientists want to establish. for the warming of our planet.

In recent years, the increasing number of heat waves has caused increasing numbers of chalk streams to dry up in many places. Less than a fifth of all rivers in England are now generally considered to be in good condition.

The ruins of Cannon Mill on the Chess River.
The ruins of Cannon Mill on the Chess River. Photography: Matt Writtle

It was in this concerning context that the Chiltern Chalk Stream Project and local community groups began discussions with Affinity Water with the aim of stopping the extraction of water from the Chess River, resulting in the decision to stop the extraction around Chesham. . Last week, the crystal waters of Chess ran through the city, shimmering in the sunlight.

However, much remains to be done to save the Chiltern chalk streams, a point that Beechey emphasized. “The abstraction around Chesham is only part of the story. The Chiltern have one of the highest water use rates in the country, around 170 liters per person per day, and we need to cut that down. Also, no reservoirs have been built in the southeast since the 1970s. We need investment. People assume that water will always be cheap, clean, and available. But there is a limit. “

One measure of the vulnerability of chalk streams was illustrated by the 2019 drought that dried up 67% of those in Chilterns. These punishment cycles of water loss are wiping out vulnerable wildlife. “The end of the abstraction around Chesham is a sign that we can do something, but the water companies and the government must do much more, and they must do it quickly,” added Beechey.

“Doing nothing would be tantamount to letting rainforests cut down at the current rate or letting coral reefs slowly erode without trying to save them. Chalk streams are an essential component of the English countryside and we have to fight to save them. “

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