Across central and southern England, rainfall in January was again below average – the Met Office produces excellent anomaly maps here.
The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology produces a monthly hydrological review which was published yesterday.This confirms that drought conditions across a swathe of England are deepening. Rivers from Cornwall, to Worcestershire across to Lincolnshire are reaching lows normally associated with summer’s end not late winter. Groundwater in aquifers which supply large parts of England with drinking water are also approaching or at historic lows with wells from Sussex to Dorset, Shropshire to Lincolnshire showing their driest levels for this time of year in 40 or 50 years.
Low river flows affect wildlife both directly and indirectly. Direct impacts include a lower water oxygen level which affects river fauna, but a general drying out of streams and wetlands as groundwater levels drop, damages a far wider range of wildlife.
There’s a more insidious impact too – pollution. Our rivers take sewage effluent (what’s left after the sewage has been treated) from sewage plants and move it away from our towns and cities. Rivers also accumulate pollution that runs off agricultural land – this includes Nitrates, Phosphates and pesticides that are used by farmers.
With this in mind, I came across an interesting case recently which emphasised to me how beneficial regulation can be in tackling what are thought to be intractable environmental problems. The Habitats Regulations implement the EC Habitats Directive in England and they are currently being reviewed, in case they are acting as a brake on development, or placing “ridiculous costs on British businesses, as the Chancellor described them in his Autumn Statement.
Poole Harbour in Dorset is a European Site, both for its birds, other fauna and also its important range of wetland habitats. As such it is protected from development which might damage its wildlife, by the Habitats Regulations. There are algal mats developing on wetland habitats in Poole Harbour and these are affecting the species that use the harbour. These algae are spreading in response to Nitrates which are being delivered to the harbour by the River Frome. Although parts of the Frome Valley are lovely and there are a few nice damp meadows along the river (which is itself a SSSI), the Frome passes mostly through productive farmland, including intensive grassland and maize grown for dairy farming, on its way to Poole Harbour. The Frome picks up Nitrate which runs off that farmland.
The Duchy of Cornwall (ie Prince Charles) continues to develop Charles’s model development at Poundbury, next to Dorchester, and they want planning permission for the next phases of the development. The extra few thousand houses in the next phases will inevitably produce extra sewage and that sewage is treated at Dorchester’s sewage farm before its remaining effluent, with Nitrate included, is pumped into the Frome – to wend its way to Poole Harbour.
Natural England, who are responsible for implementing the Habitat Regulations, have pointed out to the planning authorities, that under the Habitat Regs, “any plan or project” which might have “an adverse effect on the integrity of a European Site” must be subject to Appropriate Assessment (AA), which is a form of environmental assessment. The Habs Regs are unusual in that they require proof of no adverse effect – normally the onus is on the regulator to prove an effect. So the Poundbury Development must be assessed to see whether the sewage effluent is going to damage the special interest features of Poole Harbour. The planning authorities carried out the AA and, no surprises, have concluded that they cannot be absolutely confident that there will be no adverse effect, because of the extra Nitrate.
It’s simply too expensive to use “end of pipe” technology to reduce Nitrate in sewage effluent leaving Dorchester’s sewage plant. So the Duchy have agreed to reduce the amount of Nitrate being used on the farmland they own in the Frome Valley, to compensate for the increased Nitrate coming from the development. I don’t know the exact details but presumably they will work with their tenants to get them to convert to organic systems or enter the appropriate Entry Level schemes which ultimately lead to a reduction in the Nitrates used on that farmland, and therefore much less Nitrate running off into the river.
So have the Habitats Regulations been a brake on development? Are they gold plated? Well, in this case, not only have the Regulations been used to enable the housing development to take place in a way that doesn’t cause downstream environmental damage, but they have also been used to encourage catchment-wide sustainable farming techniques, thereby encouraging sustainable food production, reduce water pollution and reduce the waste of precious resources.
If the drought conditions persist, the issue of Nitrates in rivers is only going to become ever more important, as rivers provide people with drinking water, and Nitrates in drinking water are a recognised human health risk.
Thanks to Phil Sterling County Ecologist at Dorset County Council for enlightening me about this case.