Caught by a Stolen River

5 September 2017 // On Water

Whitehall

Words and pictures: Charles Rangeley-Wilson

It’s hard to be caught by a river if you can’t find the river. On my Dante-esque tour of Home Counties chalk streams earlier this summer, very few were flowing at all. Those few that had water in them were really only insipid ghosts of rivers.

Back in 1995 I spent a week rescuing trout from a drying chalk stream, the River Tarrant, in Dorset. I will always remember at the end of one exhausting day standing by a shrinking pool of muddy water in which were stranded a dozen or more trout. It was almost dark and I decided that I’d just have to come back in the morning. But when I did the water was gone and all the fish were dead. It was a traumatic week.

A heavily pregnant Vicky helped me with some of the work. Later she wrote an article for The Field about the terrible toll made by abstraction in chalk streams and the quiet death of one of Dorset’s prettiest little rivers, a stream where according to villagers’ memories salmon once spawned. 1995 was a dry year, but over the hill an un-abstracted Fontmell Brook kept on flowing. With pumps at the upper and lower end of the river, the Tarrant stood no chance. And yet Wessex Water, at that time, routinely denied any causal link between abstraction and diminished river flows. As did nearly every other water company.

Now, the bump that made it difficult for Vicky to haul the nets as we tried to rescue those fish is 22 years old. Other things have changed: no self-respecting hydrologist will deny that abstraction lowers flows in chalk streams; there are rafts of so-called environmental laws designed to protect flows especially in vulnerable headwater streams. And some things haven’t: still our chalk streams are abstracted and still – in the worst cases – they dry up altogether.

Earlier this summer WWF asked me to take photographs of dry or drying rivers in order to keep the pressure on our legislators as we leave the EU and try to form our own environmental legislation: another skirmish in their Rivers on the Edge campaign, with which I have been involved for a few years.

Chesham

I drove through the Chilterns and the Hertfordshire hills to the Rivers Chess, Beane, Misbourne, Ver, Mimram, Quin and Rib. All of these streams were bone dry, some for mile after mile. I took pictures in places where, a few years ago, I had seen wild trout rising to mayflies. Indeed all of these rivers were once famous wild-trout fisheries, highly prized because they were within an easy train journey of the capital. Now the capital and its suburbs have engulfed them. They flow sometimes, but never with vigour and often not at all. Yes, it was a dry winter and spring. But of all rivers chalk streams should be the last to dry up in a drought. To put it plainly, these rivers would not run dry if they were not abstracted.

Is this an environmental wrong? If it is, then it’s one in which we are all complicit. The water we so conveniently run out of taps in London comes from those dry chalk streams. The Water Companies could develop alternative sources. If they did, the rivers of our Home Counties would reliably flow again and support the wildlife that belongs there. This is happening, here and there. Recently Thames Water has agreed to supply Swindon from a different source and thus allow the River Og and the upper River Kennet to flow again.

But every victory is hard won after years and years of campaigning, largely because OFWAT is more interested in protecting the cost of water bills than the environment. This is our own inconvenient truth.

If the photographs move you, please take a look at the WWF blog and click the link at the end where you will find details of how to write to your local MP and demand that the government and OFWAT does something about the plight of our chalk-streams.

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Charles Rangeley-Wilson on Caught by the River / Charles’s blog

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