Welcome for new controls on damaging river abstractions

The Angling Trust and the World Wide Fund have cautiously welcomed Government proposals to regulate previously unlicensed water abstractions under the banner of 'New Authorisations' – something the Angling Trust has pressed for over several years.

The abstractions include trickle irrigation for agriculture, which has increased dramatically in recent decades and can have a profound impact on river flows. However, the Trust has expressed concern that these abstractions are to be regulated with a 'light touch', which it says may mean that little changes on the ground.

Over-abstraction leads to fish being more vulnerable to high temperatures, low oxygen levels, pollution and predation. It also reduces the amount of food available to fish and birds by reducing the available habitat for insect life in rivers.

Pictured right is a photograph, taken by Simon Evans of the Wye and Usk Foundation, of the River Wye below Ross-on-Wye which was reduced to a trickle in August when agricultural abstraction affected flows which were already low.

The Trust has repeatedly called for previously unregulated but cumulatively highly damaging abstractions to be included within the abstraction licensing system. Some tributaries of the River Wye on the Welsh borders, a river where salmon stocks have been under threat for many years, have been completely denuded of water by trickle irrigation systems to water nearby crops. Operators who currently abstract water without a licence - of which there are an estimated 5,000 – will have two years to submit their application for an abstraction licence from January 2018.

Since its inception in 2009 the Angling Trust has been campaigning, in partnership with WWF, for a reformed water abstraction system that affords better protection to our threatened rivers, 80 per cent of which are currently failing to meet the standard of Good Ecological Status. The Government promised to bring forward abstraction reform in its 2011 Water White Paper but there is still no sign of the system being improved to protect the environment more effectively. At recent political party conferences and in the halls of Westminster, the Angling Trust has been lobbying MPs to bring forward abstraction reform.

While the proposals to bring more abstractions into the licensing regime are a promising step in the right direction, the changes fall far short of the fundamental reform which is needed to protect England and Wales' rivers from over-abstraction. What's more, the promised 'light-touch' approach to regulation may give insufficient protection to rivers if they do not allow firm action to protect fish and other wildlife.

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust and Fish Legal, said: "At long last the Government has acted to regulate the free-for-all that has allowed abstractors to take unlimited amounts of water from our precious rivers without any protection for the environment or other water users. While we welcome this small step, we urge Ministers to take a leap towards more fundamental reform which we need to stop this country lurching from flood to drought every few years."

Cat Moncrieff, Freshwater Policy and Programme Manager at WWF-UK, said: "Trickle irrigation - although deemed to be water efficient - is damaging rivers so we welcome this move to regulate it. However, full reform of our abstraction system is needed to ensure enough water for wildlife; rivers are being sucked dry in some situations. Abstraction reform was promised in 2011 in the Government's 'Water for Life' White Paper, but six years on the much-needed legislation remains on the shelf. This is bad for rivers, bad for wildlife and bad for people."

Dr Stephen Marsh-Smith OBE, Chief Executive of Afonydd Cymru, the Rivers Trusts of Wales, concluded: "We are very pleased to see that governments and agencies of both England and Wales have finally produced this new regulation. For years - since 2003 - it has been impossible to ensure that existing controls protected our rivers from over-abstraction. Both the Wye (trickle irrigation) and Usk (Monmouthshire and Brecon canal) will benefit from including these major abstractions within the regulatory system. The burden of 'hands off' flows - the means of protecting our rivers in drought conditions - will be more equitably shared between abstractors... at last!"

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