Sunday, September 8, 2013

igas and precipitous bridges

To the current generation the word “sick” is often used to describe something that is “really good” Well this river currently assumes a reasonably sick appearance, but only in the original sense of the word.

Understandably following a hot dry summer the discharge has decreased and the river has become increasingly diminished as the summer has progressed. In the week prior to the August weed cut, the ranunculus started to die off and pull out, as I jumped in the river to thrash around with my scythe, it already looked like someone above had carried out a couple of days cutting, as dead weed hung in clumps on the weirs and shallows. The ranunculus doesn’t normally die off until after the season closes. During times of low water I would normally bar cut the lot seeking to maintain a decent level of water but the weed was not in good enough condition to maintain its place in the stream and I was left with no option but to cut back what weed remained. As a result the river is now down to its bare bones, lower than the period when water restrictions were last implemented. Four miles upstream from here at Weston Colley the river is barely running and is a foot off the bottom of the gauging station. Our bridges are decidedly precipitous and the water seems a long way down when mowing the banks with the tractor. We have barely enough water to run our stew ponds and the few fish that remain are on half rations and are not having the best time of it. The fishing in the river normally picks up in September when the river can take on a late season sparkle but la truite are reluctant to feed and most sulk and skulk. Spawning may be a few months off but currently the spawning gravels remain inaccessible to all but the weaniest fingerling and parr as the water flowing over them is barely a few inches. The fringe has been allowed to encroach as has the watercress that in some places extends half way across the channel helping to squeeze the flow, but when the first frost hits and the cress sails off downstream a trickle of water running down the centre of the channel will be all that remains.

We really need a wet winter, wetter than last year. At the start of the season I am able to make an assessment of how much water we have by the number of notches the hundred and seventy year old hatch is open on the mill house, it carries away spare water that would push the water over the banks on the main river. This April I thought we would be just about ok, with enough water to run the mill stream until the July weed cut when the hatch would be closed and all the water sent down the main river for the second half of the season which is what I would expect on a normal year. The hatch was shut after the June weed cut and the river has dropped at a remarkable rate, In recent years I have expressed my concern over the rate at which the river has dropped through the summer, it is on here somewhere, these are not rose tinted spectacles through which I peer at the past, but this river seems to drop much quicker through the summer months than ten years ago. It seems a smaller river than the one I first started looking after many years ago.

This river is crying out for water, and decent winter replenishment of the aquifers that feed it.

In 2005 the catchment abstraction management strategy for this river stated that no new abstraction from the aquifers should be considered, other than during the months December, January and February, when the aquifers should be brimful. This was a little much for some who correctly thought that the river needed all the replenishment it could get throughout all the winter months. In March of this year a review of the catchment abstraction management strategy was undertaken by command centre central and this valley received a classification that permits new applications for abstraction to be considered for six months of the year, not the three of 2005 but throughout the winter months when it is hoped a surplus will be available. There are many that would state that the chalkstreams are suffering a death by a thousand cuts, and this is just one example. Since 2005 the population in the south has increased, the amount of rain falling has decreased, yet applications for groundwater abstraction in the region will be considered over a greater part of the year.

In an era when all things new and funky are preceded with the letter “i” a fossil fuel company trading under the moniker of “igas “ have been drawing oil from below the aquifers a few miles from here. On three sites they trumpet their CBM operation as sustainable and having little impact on the environment, the process involves water, so I contacted the company and questioned them at length on their operation in the valley. It involves the retrieval of oil from coal seams deep underground and while it involves the use of water, all water used is sourced from the coal seam itself and then re-injected to the same place once the oil has been retrieved, some sites do not have the ability to re-inject the water and in such cases water is taken off site for reinjection elsewhere, if this were happening in the oil field underneath this valley I would be kicking up a fuss as it is water leaving the catchment for which it was originally intended. All three sites within a few miles from here re inject their water from whence it came. There are concerns with the process over localised drawdown of aquifers but whether that is the case here is difficult to ascertain.

The same company has identified large reserves of shale gas on several of its sites in the south, which it does not plan to currently exploit but may do in the future. Its current operation of sustainable extraction of fossil fuels should be welcomed, but can it extract its shale gas bounty from beneath this valley in a sustainable manner without impacting on the groundwater fed river above? The powers that be appear to have given them the green light to apply to use the groundwater supply during the winter months which will impact on this river and all who live, work and fish in it.

Provided I continue to look left and look right when crossing the road, my active existence, along with a diet that includes the determined and sustained consumption of red wine, tomatoes and dark chocolate should lead me to cash in my chips at a reasonable age. On days when the black dog looms, thoughts centre around warmer weather and less rain, a larger population, increased abstraction and the prospect of this river becoming unfishable during my lifetime sustained during periods of low flow by the sewage outfall at Barton Stacey. A doom laden prediction perhaps, but thirty years ago three miles upstream from here a fishing club thrived. As a student on an estate further downstream from here the fishing department would regularly deliver fish for stocking through the summer months, today any fish over half a pound would have its back out of the water.

This might sound like a case of the post holiday blues. But to quote Geoffrey Boycott (sorry) “I just say what I see” I have lost faith in those delegated to protect the chalkstream environment in recent years. This river is exceptionally low, it is lower than when water use restrictions were last in place, and I can see it with my own eyes every day. And with my conspiracy theory hat on, to allow applications for groundwater abstraction to be considered for a greater part of the year suggests that some quarters may have succumbed to government pressure over shale gas extraction and groundwater levels are now being measured with a fracking friendly ruler.

I hope I am wrong and if in the future igas apply to use groundwater to explore the possibility of exploiting shale gas beneath this valley and the groundwater is low. Someone at command centre central will ignore the "bottom line" and say that the chalkstream environment will be impacted on, the river needs every drop of water it can get, and please source your water elsewhere.

Well done to the Conservative member of Parliament for the Meon Valley for speaking up for the threat posed to chalkstreams in the south and the possible threat to groundwater supply by shale gas extraction.

He’s an angler, and not a bad one at that!

No comments: