Give chalk streams enhanced environmental status, government urged

An independent group set up last year by the government to protect and restore England’s rare chalk streams has called for the water bodies to be given enhanced environmental status.

The Catchment Based Approach (CaBA)’s Chalk Stream Restoration Working Group says that such a move would drive investment to prevent pollution and over-abstraction, as well as help to restore habitat and boost biodiversity.

However, DEFRA has not yet indicated whether it will implement the recommendation. 

The working group also made a number of other recommendations as part of a strategy it published today, including calling for an agreement on the definition of sustainable abstraction. Once this is agreed, the group says “a time-bound commitment” is needed on achieving sustainable abstraction for all chalk streams.

The group says that all chalk stream regions where public water supply is heavily reliant on groundwater abstraction should be designated as ‘water-stressed’, enabling compulsory metering in these areas.

READ MORE: Driven to abstraction: Why England's rare chalk streams are under threat

In addition, the strategy contains multiple actions aimed at driving down the nutrient loading of chalk streams to ecologically appropriate levels. These include prioritising investment in all sewage treatment works that are contributing to Water Framework Directive nutrient failures and reducing the frequency and duration of storm overflows spilling to chalk streams.

The strategy also suggests a number of practical farming rules for chalk stream catchments specifically to address pathways of diffuse agricultural pollution. 

England is home to some 283 chalk streams, making up 85% of the world’s total. They are formed when rainwater falls on chalk hills, filters through the rock, and creates springs of cool, alkaline, mineral-rich water – perfect conditions for a richly diverse ecosystem. 

However, they face unique challenges, according to the strategy, because they flow through some of the most urbanised, industrialised, and intensively-farmed areas of the country. 

In 2019, a group of 12 rivers and wildlife organisations called for urgent action, claiming that England’s chalk streams “were quite simply dying”.

Charles Rangeley-Wilson, chair of the chalk stream working group, said: “No other country in the world has anything like England’s chalk stream habitat – they’re England’s Great Barrier Reef or Okavango delta. There are dozens of actions that could and should be taken to protect them but giving chalk streams enhanced status is a vital next step.”

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said she “welcomed the ambitious strategy” and noted that a third of the strategy recommendations were “already being taken forward” by government, regulators and other members of the working group.