First, the good news …

This is a post about water (or rather the lack of it) and the extent to which our rivers and groundwater are polluted.

First the good news (slim as it is). Following a wet winter and above average rainfall in April and early May the drought situation in East Anglia is improving. The Environment Agency reports that Cambridgeshire and Essex are in “Recovering Drought” status, which means our catchments have received enough rainfall to benefit the water environment. In most but not all cases this means improving surface water flows, increased groundwater levels and ecological recovery. Despite this, the river Cam continues to be in crisis from the combined effects of low flow and pollution.

Reservoir levels in the eastern region have continued to improve; however very little of the water supply in our area comes from reservoirs, so it is of scant benefit to us. What matters most in Uttlesford is the level of water in the aquifer (groundwater) and this has been in long term decline. HERE is what we said in 2022 about the critical water shortage.

The Cam Valley

In the north of Uttlesford we have a lot in common with the water profile of Cambridgeshire. We are also custodians of the source of the iconic river Cam, a chalk stream. Several other rivers rise from the same area of chalk springs south and west of Saffron Walden. When fed from a water-full aquifer, a chalk stream flows at constant rate and constant temperature regardless of season or rainfall. However that has not been the case for Uttlesford’s chalk streams in quite a while – two decades at least – due to increasing water abstraction from the aquifer to meet domestic and agricultural demand. Another hot dry summer will be immensely harmful to the river. There appears to be no solution in the foreseeable future. HERE are questions we put to Affinity Water back in 2021.

Today the river Cam is a pale shadow of its former self. The effects of lack of flow are compounded by the river’s flow being mostly effluent discharged from upstream sewage treatment works. The high concentration of phosphate in this outflow is damaging the river ecology, made worse when sudden downpours of rain add sewage overflows to produce a nasty cocktail of bacteria and fungus. You can read HERE about the shocking results of water testing in the Cam between Newport and Great Chesterford.

Toxic combinations of chemicals found in most waterways

Sewage related pollution of rivers and coastal waters has been one of the most politically contentious topics of recent. But there is a lot more in the water than meets the eye – in our rivers and our drinking water.

Analysis of Environment Agency data by The Rivers Trust and the Wildlife and Countryside Link has found that combinations of chemicals, including PFAS ‘forever chemicals’, pesticides and pharmaceuticals known to be harmful to wildlife have been detected in 81% of rivers and lakes for which data is available, with similar combinations of chemicals in 74% of groundwater sites.

Last year we focussed on the presence of PFAS in the river Cam and our groundwater. You can read about it HERE. The damaging effects of these ‘forever chemicals‘ on human and animal health could be the next big water scandal in Britain, not least because the UK is lagging far behind the US and EU in applying stricter standards.

Lend a hand

If you’d like to help in protecting and restoring the river Cam you could think about joining CURAT [Cam Upper Reaches Action Team], a group of residents in communities along the river between Newport and Great Chesterford. More about Curat HERE.

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