issued after the Conference: ‘Owned by Everyone’? The wonder, plight and future of chalk streams, held at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Pembroke College Cambridge 30-31 March 2023, with the support of the CCI, Pembroke College, the Impact Fund of the University of Cambridge’s School of Arts and Humanities, and in partnership with WildFish Conservation.
Ninety women and men – scientists and song writers, writers, river keepers, riparian owners, students, wild swimmers, kayakers, artists, illustrators and ornithologists, representatives of local community action groups and our leading NGOs, local and national politicians, board members and former directors of water companies – gathered for two days at the end of March 2023 at the David Attenborough Building in the University of Cambridge. We came from all over England and beyond to discuss the wonder, plight and future of England’s chalk streams and the fate of their extraordinary mineral-rich water.
We agreed to issue this statement, and to do all we can to act on it, and keep on acting, and to build a coalition of care for our chalk streams that is as strong as it is inclusive. Chalk streams murmur, equably, so it is for us to raise our voice on their behalf. Their destiny is our responsibility; their very life is in our hands, and it is running, with the last of its depleted strength, through our fingers. We must all act now to restore them to their, and our, natural vitality.
If England wore a crown, it would be made of chalk stream water. Chalk streams are fed by aquifers in chalk hills sixty million years old, on which rain falls and is filtered over months and through the fossilised remains of calcium-rich shells of creatures that once teemed in long-vanished seas. They are rare as rhinos, but much more English: they are our coral reefs. They are rivers of global importance, concentrated into a fan that opens in North-East Yorkshire – Chalkshire – and closes in Dorset: think of them as the Stonehenge, the Shakespeare Sonnets, the Lark Ascending of Rivers. Novelists, poets and children’s writers have written them into our national feeling. We are unthinkable without them.
Images by Charles Rangeley-Wilson
And yet, if a nation’s culture is no better than its rivers, ours is in crisis. Many of our chalk streams are dying, murkily, and we are incensed, not least by the killing of the Cam, four hundred yards from where we met. Like many other chalk streams, chronic and intensifying over-abstraction to supply the needs of housing developments and our own careless habits of consumption within them. Intensive agriculture has robbed it of its chalk groundwater, only to replace it with untreated sewage, run off from roads and additives, phosphates and fertiliser from agriculture. Bizarrely, boreholes drilled deep into aquifers are needed to sustain what flow there is in the Cam and its tributaries. Licences for abstraction are granted, but the amount abstracted is neither sensibly limited nor adequately monitored.
So our rivers are dying, completely unnecessarily. Statutory protection for these ecosystems that in a sane world would all be Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and our lungs, our sources of spiritual refreshment, wonder, besides, are —as the Devon rivers of our conference’s inspiration, the poet and activist Ted Hughes, had become in the 1980s – sewers. Wild fish can’t breathe in water robbed of its flow, can’t breed where gravels are not washed clean by a chalk stream’s sinuous flow, can’t shelter or feed where Ranunculus, common water crowfoot, starwort, have been replaced in dredged straightened channels by blanket weed, algal blooms.
Swaffham Bulbeck Lode, May 2021. Image: Liz Thompson
Time is short. We note the important foundations recently laid in the Catchment Based Approach Chalk Stream Restoration Strategy 2021 and Implementation Plan 2022. But these crucial documents are necessary but not yet sufficient, because they are as yet not widely enough known, or supported by the resources and investment required to accelerate their recommendations as our rivers deserve, and as the Government’s plans for imminent withdrawal (by the end of 2023) of many crucial Europe-wide environmental protection legislation without adequate plans to replace them or staff to monitor those replacements. Already this year the statutory requirement to publish annual reports on water quality has been ditched. This is not good enough, not what our chalk streams need or deserve.
So we must act radically and shrewdly, not just within existing interest groups or parties but by acknowledging and acting on the recognition that chalk streams should and must belong to everyone, and that everyone is responsible for protecting their rights to life, until English law and environmental democracy recognises those rights. In building that strong, inclusive coalition of care, we must make every effort, beginning with the group assembled here, to complement the work of the Chalk Stream Hub and share resources: to find and keep using the language that hits home, touches everyone, children of all ages, makes us feel their responsibility for this crisis; the power of underwater photography and film; the wonderful examples of community action groups.
As the example and advice of Sir David Attenborough proves, only by bringing sustained and overwhelming pressure of public opinion to bear on those we elect as our representatives can historic and current class and party interests yield to all our long-term interests, in the health and vitality of our rivers. We must become Thomas Hardy’s description of watered meadows, resemble ‘silver gridirons’ in the bright coordination of what we say and what we do. We must pool our resources, using best practice to empower each local catchment to manage its common water resources better. We must advocate for the acceleration of the construction of new reservoirs, maintain the pressure to address massive leakage from pipes no longer fit for purpose, and increase investment in desalination, as alternatives to the horror of uncontrolled abstraction. We must – as swimmers, paddlers, anglers, naturalists, farmers or riparian owners, walkers and those seeking refuge and refreshment by a river – reimagine and so empower access to these extraordinary arteries in our natural and individual lives. We must, as individual water consumers, change our own attitudes to water and its consumption – noting that English people use, and waste, far more water per day than in many European nations, and that, unlike any other privatised utility, individual consumers have no choice of supplier. Those of us who can afford it must be prepared to pay more for water; those who can’t will need a form of universal credit for this essential element.
That work is only beginning, but it must mean reaching those not in our Cambridge ninety. Those who don’t know that catchments fill rivers as well as schools. We must find means by which we can, urgently, reach and maximise the recent upwelling of public outrage, that groundswell, that source of deep emotion, at some of the most hideous signs of our rivers’ decline, and we must listen to that human flow, learn from and become influencers, increase the political pressure for greater investment, greater monitoring, greater accountability until we wash away greenwashing. We must also listen to those who have not yet discovered the power of rivers, and help them discover it.
We must, then, work together not just to treat the symptoms of the terminal decline of our chalk streams – abstraction, pollution – but to address their cause. We must no longer tolerate successive institutional failures in which we have been complicit, and instead ensure, by our action, our advocacy and our example, that those institutions on which we depend – privatised water companies, local authorities, national governments, our judiciary – do what nature needs them to: protect and restore our chalk streams. Let them flow as nature intended. And we must do this fast. Our beloved chalk streams, and our children, and their children, deserve no less.