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Uttlesford District Council 'must act' to protect rare river habitats from drying up

Uttlesford is heading towards a “perfect storm” as decreasing rainfall is met with an increase in water demand and urgent action is required to protect rare river habitats before it is too late, the district council has been warned.

A cross-party motion to safeguard the area's rivers and ensure sustainable water provision was put to members of last night's full council, calling on them to vote for immediate measures to be put in place.

Cllr Richard Pavitt, deputy chair of Uttlesford's Climate Change and Ecology Working Group who prepared the motion, said the underground chalk aquifer feeding the district’s rivers was being over-exploited to supply housing development in Cambridgeshire and Uttlesford.

“As a consequence river levels are critically low and this will get worse as climate change reduces rainfall in a region that is already water stressed,” he said.

The motion also calls on the Environment Agency to take action to avoid the loss of important river habitats and requires the council to introduce policies to protect the district’s rivers and make new homes more water efficient.

"We are the custodians of the River Cam at this end, it is as low as it has ever been," added Mr Pavitt, who represents Littlebury, Chesterfords and Wendens Loft. "The average rainfall in this area has hardly changed in 60 years, however, with climate change it is not coming down in even waves.

"We get droughts and then sudden downpours and the water doesn't soak into the ground, but just runs off the surface and out to sea. Sudden rainfall is an illusion because all that water is not actually sinking into the chalf aquifer.

"Probably in the last 20-30 years demand has increased and the water table is going down and not getting replenished - we are paying a substantial ecological price in our area."

Rivers in the north of Uttlesford, which rise from the chalk aquifer, are designated chalk streams – of which there are only 200 in the world, most in the south and east of England. The River Cam has its source four miles south of Saffron Walden in an area of natural springs that is also the origin of the river Chelmer. The River Stort, which has its source at Langley, is also classified a chalk stream.

“Our chalk streams are dying,” said Cllr Pavitt. “People tend to accept the low level of our rivers as normal, but it is not. It is a direct consequence of over-abstraction of the aquifer to serve housing development."

He said Uttlesford must act to raise awareness of the threat and demand that those responsible for water supply and environmental protection act now to avoid the loss of important river habitats.

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