Water-fight that threatens to leave wildlife high and dry

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The Independent Online
A month-long war of words over water starts today with an unprecedented public inquiry over a much-loved chalk stream. It will establish how much power the Government's top environmental watchdog has over the privatised water companies.

The Environment Agency wants to cut the amount of water Thames Water is licensed to take from the chalk aquifer below the River Kennet during times of low flow. If it succeeds, an important precedent in water supply versus wildlife conflicts will be established. At the four-week inquiry, held in Newbury, Berkshire, the agency will claim that the Kennet - a government-designated Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its wildlife - is already damaged by abstraction from the Axford borehole, less than half a mile from the river. The agency will argue it has the right to insist that it can alter Thames's abstraction licence for low- flow periods, and that the water company should not have to be compensated for the loss.

But Thames Water, Britain's biggest privatised water company, will have none of this. It argues that the borehole, near Marlborough, is doing no damage to the river, and that the agency has no legal powers to restrict its water-abstraction licence, which dates back to 1965.

Dr Peter Spillet, the company's environment manager, said: "This makes it quite impossible for us to justify spending millions of pounds of customers' money developing alternative sources of drinking water." The borehole supplies drinking water to 180,000 people in fast-growing Swindon and smaller towns nearby. Both sides have legal teams headed by a Queen's Counsel barrister.

At the end of the inquiry the Government's inspector, water engineer Ian McPherson, will present conclusions to the Secretary of State for the Environment who must make a final decision. Under the existing licence the water company can take up to 13.7 million litres a day from the borehole, but when the Kennet's flow slows to below 61.4 million litres a day, this maximum abstraction drops to a daily 9.9 million litres. In an average year the slow-down happens for about six weeks.

The agency wants to phase in curbs gradually. From 2005 onwards it wants Thames to take only 2 million litres a day during low-flow periods. The low-flow limit of the Kennet would be triggered sooner, before it drops below 104 million litres a day; the river flows at a slower rate than that for three months in an average year.

Dr Chris Newbold, the leading river specialist with the Government's wildlife conservation arm English Nature, will tell the hearing that low flows are exacerbating other environmental stresses. Sediment from a sewage works and the intensively farmed fields on either side of the stream is building up on the stream bottom, smothering the Kennet's gravel beds. The growth of water crowfoot, the floating plant characteristic of English chalk streams, is being retarded as a result, and the low flows mean pollutants are reaching high concentrations.

Also giving evidence in favour of shrinking Thames's licence will be the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and retired surgeon Roger de Vere, chairman of the local anglers' association and treasurer of Action for the River Kennet. "It's already a sick river, a shadow of its former self," said Mr de Vere, who has lived in a mill beside the River Kennet for 26 years. He added that the numbers of snipe nesting in the watermeadows, lampreys in the river, and dragonflies and kingfishers in the area, had all declined.

t Plans to dam the tidal Thames in London to eliminate the "ugly" muddy foreshore have met with opposition. Local councils, the government's Environment Agency and other groups and individuals, are strongly against the River Thames Society's proposal for a tidal barrier at Chelsea.

A barrier, besides costing millions of pounds, would maintain a fixed high-water level for several miles upstream to the locks at Teddington, where the tidal river ends. Freed from the tricky tidal currents and narrow passage at low water, pleasure craft would find this stretch of river far easier to navigate.

The society, a charity which campaigns for river conservation, is itself split on the scheme. And the London Rivers Association, which represents riverine councils and several other bodies including the society itself, is against it. "We think it's outrageous," a spokeswoman for the LRA said. "It would damage the river's ecology and it would add to the problem of a rising water table in central London."