18/09/2017 - Environment Agency comes out against River Test abstraction plans
Environment Agency comes out against River Test abstraction plans
The Angling Trust & Fish Legal have welcomed news that Southern Water’s longstanding plan to abstract more water from the iconic River Test has been determined by the Environment Agency as likely to be unlawful.
The water company has developed detailed plans over the past few years to replace public water supplies soon to become unavailable from Hampshire’s River Itchen by abstracting extra water through a £50m pipeline from Testwood, a prime salmon fishery on the lower River Test, and taking it to Otterbourne on the Itchen. The Agency in effect now accepts that this would be ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, as angling interests have argued. The conflicting positions of regulator and water company will now be fully aired at a forthcoming public inquiry.
A significant proportion of the public water supply in the Southampton and Isle of Wight area continues to be abstracted from the Itchen and Test. But because the Itchen (although not the Test) is a highly protected ‘Special Area of Conservation’ (SAC) under the Habitats Directive, Southern Water is being required to limit its Itchen abstractions during severe droughts to achieve the required “SAC sustainability reduction”. In order to have security of supply against these occasional reductions, it had planned to exploit the ‘headroom’ (undeveloped extra capacity) of its historical licence on the Test near Southampton, while putting forward self-imposed ‘restrictions’ on how it would use this theoretical surplus. The company had claimed that the pipeline would only be used in exceptional ‘drought’ years, but documents seen by Fish Legal reveal that it could actually be used on average one year in every four, which could have a serious continuing impact on salmon and sea trout migration in the River Test.
Following many years of scientific analysis, the Agency has now concluded that the water company’s plan, including its 2016 application to vary and thereby ‘restrict’ the Testwood licence in order to justify building the pipeline, would risk causing a significant ecological deterioration in the lower Test (particularly because of impacts on salmon migration) and would thus be unlawful under the Water Framework Directive.
The Agency has proposed its own licence variation, which would largely confine future Testwood abstractions to recent historical levels – significantly below the theoretical licence maximum – and would impose raised low-flow limits (“Hands-Off Flows”) below which flows reduced by abstraction would not be allowed to drop.
The Rivers Test and Itchen are chalkstreams – exceptionally clear and high pH rivers fed from chalk aquifers – which are world-famous for flyfishing for trout and salmon. England has 80% of the world’s chalkstreams, most of which are widely recognised to be seriously threatened by over-abstraction.
Southern Water is already appealing the rejection of its 2016 Testwood licence variation, and will almost certainly appeal the Agency’s new proposal, to a public inquiry which is likely to take place in early 2018. The proposed Itchen licence changes (to accomplish the Itchen SAC “sustainability reduction”) will also be assessed at the inquiry.
Andrew Kelton, Fish Legal solicitor who has been acting for the Testwood and Nursling salmon and sea trout fishery near the mouth of the River Test, said: “We are very heartened to see that the Environment Agency has apparently stuck to its guns, no doubt in the face of considerable pressure, and is making the protection of both of these precious chalkstreams its first priority. There are numerous other options for compensating for the proposed Itchen ‘sustainability reduction’, including a new reservoir at Havant Thicket, which should be - and should already have been - vigorously assessed and brought forward before proposing to do yet more damage to a world famous chalkstream like the Test through increased abstraction.”
Mark Lloyd, CEO of Fish Legal and the Angling Trust, said: “Chalkstreams have been described as England’s coral reefs because of their biodiversity and landscape importance, and they are renowned around the world as the home of fly fishing. Unfortunately they are also very attractive to water companies for their sweet water and we welcome the Environment Agency’s determination in this case not to allow further degradation of these precious habitats – although that will now have to be defended at appeal. There is an urgent need for the government to fulfil its promise in 2011 to reform abstraction legislation, which would provide the national strategic framework to address regional supply issues such as this.”
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