‘Sobering reading’: River Spey catchment no longer able to store enough water, says report

A new report has warned that the catchment of a river in the north-east of Scotland that is internationally renowned for its salmon fishing is storing far less water than naturally expected due to over-abstraction and artificial diversion.

The report from the Spey Fishery Board (SFB) has called for a reduction in the volumes of water artificially diverted from the river Spey’s catchment to generate hydroelectricity and for some of its tributaries to be re-watered.

The Spey is a designated Special Area of Conservation for a range of species, including the threatened wild Atlantic salmon.

The report highlights that the Spey valley’s sand and gravel deposits now store much less water than would have been expected in the past, and attributes this to lower river levels caused by diversions, which is in turn exacerbated by “historic land use practices” and the reduced amount of snow melting in the spring. 

Consequently, the report from the statutory body concludes that the river is much less able to cope with the low flow conditions and higher water temperatures brought on by climate change.

Roger Knight, director of the SFB, described the report as making for “sobering reading”. 

“It is now abundantly clear that the scale of water transferred out of the Spey valley to generate hydro-electricity is having a devastating impact on the river”, he said. “It has denuded the groundwater storage supplies and has drastically reduced the Spey’s ability to cope with hotter, drier summers which are predicted to occur more frequently under climate change. This situation is not sustainable.”

He continued that the hydro-electricity technology used in the Spey Valley is 80 years old, adding that “such impoundments and abstractions would not be permitted under present-day environmental standards”. 

“It is crucial that licensed abstraction from our upper tributaries is re-appraised and appropriately regulated to give this iconic river the sustainability it deserves as the reality of the climate emergency becomes apparent”, said Knight.

The SFB’s report states that the Spey is the most heavily-abstracted of Scotland’s major rivers, and calls on the Scottish Government and Scottish Environment Protection Agency to support and encourage the SFB’s river restoration activities.

Of all the water permitted to be abstracted or diverted out of the catchment, the SFB says more than 90% of it is taken from the top 13% of the Spey catchment, then diverted either to the west to Fort William, or to the Tay to generate hydro-electricity. The report says the schemes – in place since the 1940s – can reduce the natural flow in the Spey by up to 61% in some areas down river. 

The report only covers the Spey catchment, but the authors write that they believe that there would be “great value” in the Scottish government commissioning a similar analysis for the rest of Scotland. 

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