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Water Matters – report from the Vitacress Conservation Trust Chalk Stream Headwaters Forum

The Vitacress Conservation Trust (VCT) Chalk Stream Headwaters Forum in November 2016 was again a marvellous symposium of recent research and conservation, enhancing understanding and the management of our iconic and globally important rivers, reports CPRE Hampshire water representative, Moya Grove.

The VCT has an admirable record in funding and disseminating research. We hope to publish more detail about some of the issues raised in future articles.
Professor Gail Taylor, VCT Chairman, looked back on ten years of the Trust and reflected on its vital role in funding detailed evidential research into the ecosystem services and environmental capital supplied by these river systems. Among many initiatives, four PhDs (two ongoing) and current research into crayfish have all been funded, and a technical advisory panel set up.

Graham Roberts, a VCT trustee and past chair of Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust speaking on the Upper Itchen initiative praised its progress but, he exclaimed with typical passion, there was still an increasing amount to do. Positives and negatives abound. The Environment Agency is lowering permitted limits for phosphorus, but Southern Water needs to abstract more from the Candover. Ben Rushbrook is making great strides understanding the threatened white crayfish with the help of Bristol University, but white crayfish are now restricted to an ark site. Key to this is the quality of discharges from our septic tanks as well as from agriculture to the ground water feeding the surface streams.

Dr Peter Shaw (Southampton University) reported on this year’s meticulous collection of evidence for phosphorus levels in the Itchen. So much is added by these groundwater seeps and springs that the Itchen is 98% above the average level (which is already too high) at Itchen Abbas. Catchment Sensitive Farming (CFS) is one way forward.

Wider issues of water supply and quality relevant to all of us were taken up by Professor Fawell of Cranfield University. “It takes thought to reduce the amount of water used, and the chemicals in the products we buy”. Is desalination by reverse osmosis as at Thames East the way forward? Should we be reusing water? Grey or recycled water is now accepted in California because there is no other source. But was the slogan “Toilet to Tap” really the best way to promote grey water use?! He deplored the lack of political overview in the UK handling of this precious resource and the lack of a link with planning, a cause strongly supported by CPRE Hampshire.

Fran Davies of Natural England regretted the lack of regulatory enforcement because bodies like the Environment Agency are underfunded and increasingly undermanned. At the grass roots we must inspire people to create change and provide solutions. At government level we need a new holistic conservation strategy with people at its heart. The new Defra 25 year plan in preparation will be reviewed thoroughly when it emerges. Meanwhile Natural England is getting its boots wet successfully restoring the Avington Lake to health.

Throughout the day the wild card of Brexit was much referred to both as a constraint and as an opportunity. Water‘s role both as natural capital and as an ecosystem service was a key theme throughout.  

Moya Grove
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