Reading MP visits unique chalk stream to highlight drought and over-abstraction issues

Reading West MP Alok Sharma joined WWF today on the banks of the River Kennet in Reading to see first-hand how the unique chalk stream is coping with the effects of drought and over-abstraction.

After two dry winters much of England is experiencing a severe drought and our rivers are suffering. The River Kennet – one of only a handful of chalk streams in the UK which supports a unique range of wildlife - is extremely low for this time of year and this is having a serious impact on the wildlife and the people who depend on it. Last year areas of the river upstream dried up and some parts are already dry now.

The drought, however, is not the only cause of the current low levels in the river. A large volume of water is taken upstream and diverted to Swindon to meet the city’s needs. The Environment Agency has identified the Kennet as an over-abstracted river in need of remedial action.

Alok Sharma and WWF discussed what solutions were available and how the country’s ancient rivers like the Kennet river could be better managed. The Government has recognised the need to tackle over- abstraction and reform water abstraction licenses in general, in its Water White Paper published last December and the main challenge is now to implement it quickly.

The document proposes a variety of measures to improve the way our rivers are managed. The two main suggestions include reforming all water abstraction licences and dealing with the legacy of over-abstraction that is already affecting rivers like the Kennet. Where too much water is already being taken from the river, as it is further upstream on the Kennet, the proposals would allow a water company to make financial investments to secure less damaging water supplies. In addition, all abstraction licences will be reformed so that they better respect environmental limits and the needs of nature along the river.

However, WWF is worried that some of the proposals contained in the Water White Paper might not be implemented until 2015/16 - after the next general election – while the state of many rivers is already critical.

Alok Sharma MP said: ‘Reading was founded on the River Kennet, and it has been part of the lifeblood of the town for centuries. It is incredibly worrying to hear that over the past year sections of it have completely dried up further upstream. The Government’s proposals for reforming how we manage and use water will make a real difference to rivers like the Kennet.’

Dr Rose Timlett, Freshwater Policy Officer, WWF-UK said: ‘The River Kennet is very special - it is one of only a handful of chalk streams in England and supports a unique range of wildlife. However, it is in trouble due to the current drought and because we are taking too much water out of the river to feed growing demand from households. When the river dries up it affects both people and nature, including brown trout and water voles, and we urgently need to improve the way we manage and use water.’

Photos: Alok Sharma MP for Reading West with Dr Rose Timlett from WWF