The final blow for Atlantic salmon on the Rivers Test and Itchen

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  • Wildfish
  • Wildfish
  • Wildfish
  • Wildfish
Southern Water promise Water for Life but at what cost to wild fish? ©Shutterstock

Southern Water yet again extends time frames to over-abstract water from iconic chalk streams.

On the 1st of September, Southern Water published its Statement of Response to its draft Water Resource Management Plan. These documents revealed that Southern Water will have extended access to drought permits on some of the most unique chalk streams in the world until at least the mid-2030s. 

These changes will allow Southern Water to continue over-abstracting water from the Test and Itchen and in times of drought remove extra water from the rivers – below ecologically safe limits. 

In 2018, the EA entered into a legal agreement with Southern Water to protect the River Test, Itchen and Candover Brook from unsustainable abstraction. A deadline of 2027 was set for Southern Water to have an alternative water supply in place to ensure it ceased its use of drought measures on these rivers – except in extremely rare circumstances on the River Test. Southern was required to use “all best endeavours” to secure this alternative resource.

The 2027 statutory deadline was a win for the chalk streams and their salmon populations. However, through a combination of ongoing mismanagement and underinvestment Southern Water has been unable to secure the alternative water resource on time. In fact, since the agreement was signed, Southern Water has been able to drive the EA back – time and time again – with the deadline nearly a decade past what was originally agreed on the Test and Candover.

Table 1 (below) outlines the extended time frames. This will allow Southern Water to continue relying on drought permits during drought and abstractions that were due to be potentially capped or capped and reduced.

Table 1: The extended time frames requested by Southern Water and agreed by the Environment Agency. 

Location Supply type Original date Extended date
Test Drought Permit 2029/30 2034/35
Itchen Drought Permit 2026/27 2029/30
Candover Drought Permit 2026/28 2034/35
Near Whitchurch Abstraction 2031 2036
Overton Abstraction 2031 2036
Whitchurch Abstraction 2031 2036
Romsey Abstraction 2031 2036
King’s Somborne Abstraction 2031 2036
Winchester Abstraction 2031 2036
Alresford Abstraction 2031 2036
Barton Stacey Abstraction 2031 2036
Itchen Surface Abstraction 2031 2036
Itchen Ground Abstraction 2031 2036
Test Surface Abstraction 2031 2036

James Overington, water policy officer at WildFish, said: “whilst Southern Water delays the delivery of its alternative water resources, salmon populations on the Test and Itchen plummet. Reduced flow on these rivers, caused by dry conditions and over-abstraction, is undoubtedly impacting salmon numbers. Last year’s drought resulted in the lowest ever returning salmon numbers on the Itchen and fourth lowest on the Test since 1990. Salmon numbers on both rivers are less than half the conservation limit – which is the minimum number required to maintain the population. These populations of wild iconic fish are running out of time”. 

The EA should be doing everything in its power to protect these locally distinct and important fish from extinction. Instead, re-negotiating Southern Water’s deadline feels like the killer blow.

Last summer, Southern Water got close to submitting drought permits due to the drought conditions. With record low salmon numbers on these rivers last year, imagine how close they would have been to collapse if Southern were allowed to abstract below ecologically safe limits. With these ecologically harmful conditions extended, drought could wipe out salmon on the Test and Itchen over the next decade.

With the EA’s section 20 agreement in absolute tatters, we have little faith that Southern Water will meet even these re-negotiated deadlines. Salmon on the Test and Itchen desperately need a regulator who will apply the brakes now, before it’s too late.

Janina Gray

Deputy chief executive at WildFish
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