Water, Wildlife and Us

© Linda Pitkin - 2020Vision

We must be more efficient with Hampshire’s Water Resources, says Ali Morse, Water Specialist at the Wildlife Trust

Records show that last winter was the driest in 20 years, and there are signs that we are still feeling the effects.

Here in Hampshire, we rely on winter rainfall to replenish the groundwater held in the chalk rocks beneath our feet – these aquifers provide the main part, the ‘baseflows’, of our precious chalk rivers, so are crucial for eel, brown trout, mayflies, kingfishers and other abundant wildlife of rivers like the Test, Itchen and Meon.

But this water source is important for society too; the groundwater, and the rivers it gives rise to, are the source of our drinking water.

Bumblebee © Jon Hawkins / Surrey Hills Photography

Bumblebee © Jon Hawkins / Surrey Hills Photography

Dry winters, although pleasant at the time, can therefore be problematic not only for our wildlife, but for all homes and businesses throughout the area. Aquifer levels in Hampshire are not yet critical; but levels in the River Itchen for example have been below normal for most of the year, and Met Office predictions don’t indicate that the rainfall ‘deficit’ is likely to diminish.

In other parts of the country the situation is more serious; some farmers had to begin irrigating their crops 6 weeks earlier than usual because of the dry conditions, and several water companies have begun making preparations for dealing with a possible drought later in the year.

So in Hampshire, we need to manage our water resources carefully, as this could help to avoid us running short later on.

Great Egret at Testwood Lakes © James West

Great Egret at Testwood Lakes © James West

The amount of water in our catchments is a balance between what goes in (rainfall) and what we take out (abstraction). This means that the more water we can leave in the environment, the less likely our rivers and wetlands will suffer the effects of low flows and subsequent droughts. It also means that if we can reduce wastage and excessive consumption, we are less likely to have to endure hosepipe bans or even standpipes if a drought does hit.

Water companies have invested millions in repairing leaks in aging infrastructure, dramatically reducing the amount of water lost from supply pipes. Metering has helped too, with household use declining as people strive not to waste water which they are now paying for by volume.

Other abstractors like farmers, who take water for irrigation, also pay for the volumes of water used - so investment in on-farm rainwater storage, and drought-tolerant crops all help to ensure that less water needs to be taken out of the environment.

A new way forward

Around Cheriton, where daily water consumption is 180 litres per person (well above the region’s average of 130 litres), Southern Water are piloting an innovative scheme which will see communities rewarded if they manage to hit water saving targets over the course of the year.

The company is encouraging efficiency by providing water efficiency audits, free water saving devices for taps, toilets and showers and discounted water butts. A 25% saving will see participating parishes sharing a £50,000 reward to invest in local community projects; this is a great boost for the local community, but is also more cost effective for the company than having to invest in developing new water sources to meet such high demand.

Customers’ bills also decrease, and the environment benefits from having less water taken away from it; not just a win-win situation, more a win-win-win-win!

As water companies develop their business plans for the next management period (2020 – 2025), this is exactly the kind of scheme the Wildlife Trust will be calling for more of. The company are similarly partnering with Eastleigh Borough Council and local developers on a water efficiency scheme for new builds; if new homes are fitted with water-efficient fixtures & fittings, the developer receives a discount on the fee it pays to connect to the water supply system.

This scheme goes beyond the levels of water efficiency required by the Building Regulations, providing a great example of how companies can step up where policy and legislation aren’t doing enough to limit water use and protect our rivers.

Bridge on the upper Test near Laverstoke

© Ali Morse

Ofwat, the water industry regulator, also has an important role to play, setting out the things it wants to see in companies’ plans. A new duty on Ofwat means that companies need to be thinking about ‘resilience’; this includes reducing demand for water, and protecting supplies that are vulnerable to the effects of pollution or climate change.

As customers, you can all have a say in how your water company will meet these challenges in the coming years; so keep an eye on company websites and future blogs to learn more.

Customers’ views help to inform company plans, so look out for opportunities to tell your water company that you want them to do more to protect our globally-rare chalk streams, and Hampshire’s other rivers and wetlands.