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A third of river catchments in England are threatened by excessively high abstraction levels

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Excessive water abstraction threatens UK rivers

Ecologist

29th April, 2010

Out-of-date licensing rules mean water companies are taking too much water from rivers and threatening local ecosystems

River ecosystems in England and Wales are being increasingly threatened with over-abstraction by water companies, according to a study by WWF.

The study, 'Riverside Tales', looked at three 'unique' chalk streams under stress - the Itchen, the upper Kennet and the tributaries of the upper Lee (the Mimram and the Beane) - to find out whether existing plans by water companies and the public regulators were protecting the waterways.

The Itchen was found to be a successful example of good water management with plans to install water meters throughout the region to help protect against over-abstraction.

However, across England the picture was less encouraging, with a third of river catchments threatened by excessively high abstraction levels.

In months when rainfall is low and people use high amounts of water in gardens the combination of low water levels and peak abstraction demands can cause significant damage. The study says rivers can completely dry out or flows drop to levels so low that whole parts of the ecosystem can die.

'While an ecosystem can sometimes recover if these are one-off events, if there is a prolonged drought (dry summer followed by dry winter) or dry conditions are repeated in consecutive years, we risk killing ecosystems off indefinitely,' says the report.

WWF says the blame lies with out-of-date water abstraction licences and is calling on the Environment Agency, which regulates rivers in England and Wales, to revoke the most damaging licences by 2020.

Although companies now have an obligation to improve water efficiency, WWF said many of the abstraction licences do not take into account the amount of available water the rivers now have in them.

WWF also says water companies provide little information to customers about the impact of water extraction on the river ecosystem.

'All the water we use is taken from the natural environment, and as water scarcity becomes a bigger issue in the UK, the framework for how we manage water resources in England and Wales must be changed.

'Reducing unsustainable abstraction will require strong leadership from government, water regulators, and water companies,' said Rose Timlett, Freshwater Policy and Programme Officer, WWF-UK.

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Riverside tales: lessons for water management reform from three English rivers

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