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Salmon saved from being left high and dry after River Test abstraction saga is finally resolved


Testwood Mill Pool catch (Andrew Kelton article) x500px

Returning a salmon from the Testwood & Nursling fishery.
CREDIT: Little River Management & Dry Fly Fishing Ltd.

A public inquiry called by the Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove concluded on 27th March with a formal agreement to restrict the amount of water Southern Water is allowed to abstract from the world famous chalk rivers Test and Itchen.

The company has not only abandoned its longstanding plans for a £50 million pipeline that could have transferred up to 45 million litres of water a day from the River Test to the Itchen but has also now agreed to tight restrictions on the more limited transfer it had proposed at the start of the inquiry.

The Test and Itchen are two of the most famous chalkstreams in the world, recognised for their unique ecology, for being the ‘home’ of flyfishing for trout and for supporting unique genetic populations of Atlantic salmon. They also supply much of the rapidly growing population of South Hampshire with drinking water.

Over a decade ago, the Environment Agency proposed that Southern Water should reduce abstractions from the Itchen during droughts because it is designated as a Special Area of Conservation. The water company responded by applying to maximise its abstractions from other watercourses, including transferring water out of the Test in drought conditions rather than building new reservoirs or desalination plants.

Fish Legal has represented the Testwood & Nursling salmon fishery (Little River Management Ltd) on this issue for several years, making the case that the extra abstraction and transfer would risk an unlawful Water Framework Directive ‘deterioration’ in the lower Test. The Environment Agency apparently agreed and it rejected the company’s voluntary application, proposing instead new hands-off flow levels not only for the Itchen but also for the Test. Southern Water appealed the Agency’s licence change proposals to the recent public inquiry.

Fish Legal, concerned that the Environment Agency was providing little evidence to counter the water company’s highly technical case, joined the inquiry as a Rule 6 party (with formal evidence and cross-examination rights) and instructed its own expert, John Lawson, an eminent retired water resources engineer, to undertake a close examination of Southern Water’s modelling which concluded that the company had exaggerated the frequency and extent of future supply deficits and therefore the need for increased abstraction.

A few days before the inquiry was due to open, Southern Water, apparently now accepting this revised analysis, announced that it would no longer be contesting the Agency’s proposals and would not be putting forward any evidence for cross-examination.

Fish Legal remained concerned, however, that the Agency’s proposals were not sufficiently restrictive, as they would still permit Southern Water to abstract and transfer an additional 25 million litres a day not only in rare ‘severe drought’ circumstances but also during more frequent, ‘preparing for drought’ or even normal flow scenarios.

Fish Legal continued to argue that any increase in abstraction would be significantly harmful to the Test, especially to salmon migration and survival.

At the end of the inquiry, after protracted negotiations, Southern Water effectively agreed to Fish Legal’s position on strict transfer limits at the same time accepting the Agency’s proposed restrictions on its licences.

Andrew Kelton, the lead Solicitor for Fish Legal on this case said: “Fish Legal is confident that, in the long-term, the tight limits and public accountability imposed by these agreements will mean that Southern Water cannot now rely on increased abstraction and transfer from Testwood. The company will finally have to commit to non-ecologically damaging new infrastructure, including a reservoir at Havant Thicket near Portsmouth and major desalination and water re-use schemes.

"Ultimately, only time will tell but this appears to represent an end to the company’s long-held plans for further exploiting the chalkstream sources of southern Hampshire and therefore a victory for one of this country’s most precious natural assets and the fishery it supports.”

Contact: Fish Legal - Eastwood House | 6 Rainbow Street | Leominster | HR6 8DQ | Tel: 01568 620447

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