The Environment Agency warns that most rivers in England and Wales are at the limit of what can be sustainably taken from them. Rivers supply most of the UK's water needs and the health and quality of many is now under threat as a result.
The source of the River Wensum lies in north-west Norfolk and runs through Norwich before merging with the River Yare. The Wensum takes its name from the old English for “winding”.
The Wensum is an internationally important chalk river, underlain by a vast natural underground reservoir - an aquifer. The river is currently classified by the Environment Agency (EA) as being in “unfavourable declining ecological condition”.
A 71km stretch of the Wensum is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by Natural England, with over 100 plant species, a rich invertebrate fauna and supporting marine and wildlife, such as the otter.
The European Water Vole, a semi-aquatic rodent, often known as a “water rat”, makes its home in the Wensum's banks. The water vole is legally protected in the UK but recent years have seen more than a 90% drop in numbers.
Daily water consumption in the UK stands at around 150 litres per person. The government wants to encourage people to use less water – perhaps taking shorter showers rather than deep baths – to bring usage down to 130 litres per person, per day.
We are now using 15% more water than we did 25 years ago. Some parts of the southeast have less rainfall per person that Istanbul and Miami. To meet demand, water companies pump water from the aquifers which are meant to feed the rivers.
The EA grants licences to water companies, farmers and industry to abstract water from aquifers. Concern over rivers at risk has led the EA to re-evaluate hundreds of licences, but 80% of them currently have no environmental restrictions.
Campaigners believe water companies should meet demand by helping customers use less water, repairing leaks or buying surplus water from neighbouring water companies rather than the cheaper option of taking water from aquifers.
In the UK, about two-thirds of the land is under agricultural production. Food production brings some unwanted effects like fertiliser and pesticide pollution run-off and the Wensum and its inhabitants are among the victims.
Of the Wensum habitat included in the SSSI around 86% is classified as unfavourable, although around two thirds of that is recovering.
“It’s a here and now problem. Our rivers are suffering because so much water is being taken from them. That is why it is so important that the government take this opportunity to rescue them,” says Rose Timlett of the WWF-UK.
Professor Martin Cave believes the solution could lie in water trading “which would enable minimum amounts of water to be transported between different locations where there is a shortage and a surplus in another”.
As the UK population is predicted to rise by another 20 million by 2050, it seems likely that alternative solutions to the UK’s water demands will soon be required if the river habitats we know them are to survive. Photography: John Baley