EA faces legal challenge if it fails to curb Southern Water’s chalk stream abstraction

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The Rivers Itchen (pictured above) and Test are two of England's highly protected chalk streams and support unique populations of the now-endangered Atlantic salmon.

WildFish has written to the Environment Agency warning that it could face a legal challenge if it does any deals with Southern Water to erase commitments the company made to stop abstracting water from the Rivers Test and Itchen, during drought conditions, beyond 2027.

This follows a discovery by WildFish last year that Southern Water was secretly meeting with the Environment Agency to change its agreement (called a “Section 20 Water Resources Act arrangement”) with the regulator to stop removing unsustainable volumes of water from the Test and Itchen.

Salmon populations hit critical levels

The Itchen and Test are two of England’s highly protected chalk streams and support unique populations of the now-endangered Atlantic salmon.

In 2022, the Itchen recorded the lowest number of returning adult Atlantic salmon in 30 years with counter data showing just 133 returning fish which represented only 20% of the Conservation Limit (a river-specific target below which the population level of a species should not be allowed to fall).

The Test saw just 506 fish return – the fifth lowest return recorded since records began (data taken from an Environment Agency report on the Upper Itchen estuary water quality monitoring and relevance to Atlantic salmon conservation).

Curbing Southern Water’s demand for water from the Rivers Test and Itchen

In 2018, organisations including WildFish, Fish Legal and WWF took part in an Inquiry set up to deal with an appeal by Southern Water after the Environment Agency tried to curb the water company’s demand for water from the Test and Itchen by “varying” its abstraction licences. Action that was taken to diminish the harm being caused by Southern Water to these rivers and their wild fish populations.

As part of the deal done at the Inquiry, Southern Water agreed to the Environment Agencies stipulations in return for being allowed – in extreme circumstances only – to use drought permits when there are real shortages of water. WildFish and WWF added key paragraphs to the agreement which committed the water company to use its “best endeavours” to provide long term alternatives to abstracting the rivers including building a reservoir by 2027.

The 2027 deadline is not a nice to have. The iconic salmon populations in these rivers do not have the luxury of time, they will become extinct unless urgent action is taken and all best endeavours used”.

Janina Gray

Deputy CEO at WildFish

Janina continued: we’ve written to the Environment Agency to remind them of the input campaigners had in drafting the agreement and that it cannot be changed without consultation. If they simply ignore our communication, then it may be open to legal challenge.”

  • Keith Maddox
    31st May 2024

    I agree 100% with the stand taken by wildfish. I’m the fishery keeper for 3 beats on the Wye abstraction levels are well beyond anything I have ever seen in 58 years on this river. It needs sorting out ASAP.

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