Regular reviews of abstraction licences are the mechanism by which the Environment Agency is required to protect the natural environment and other water users from deterioration and damage caused by taking groundwater.
Any licence posing a potential risk to our finest wildlife sites should be subject to intense scrutiny using the best available science. Where the risk of abstraction causing environmental deterioration has been identified then the RSPB considers that the Environment Agency should take a precautionary approach and abstraction licences should not be renewed.
Water abstraction licence renewals in the Catfield area
The concerns regarding impacts from water abstraction on Catfield Fen have long been debated and the RSPB continues to collect and collate ecological evidence.
Our interpretation of the evidence is that the site continues to become drier and more acidic. This is of serious concern as many of the rarer species cannot exist in conditions of increased acidity and reduced water availability. The RSPB also has concerns that similar changes could impact Sutton Fen in the future.
The Environment Agency has continued to interrogate its groundwater model to look at drawdown scenarios within the Ant valley and the degree of adverse impact (or otherwise) resulting from abstraction within the valley. This approach has expanded beyond Catfield Fen to consider an additional 41 time-bound abstraction licences. The results of these deliberations will be made public later in 2020.
As important components of The Broads Special Area of Conservation (SAC), the evidence gathered by the Environment Agency (EA) to date has not been able to demonstrate that water abstraction is not causing a damaging effect on Catfield Fen. Indeed, Natural England (NE) have highlighted that key features of the Ant Broads and Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest are vulnerable from water abstraction in the wider area.
In the Catfield area, some effort to improve water storage and reduce reliance on water abstraction has taken place, but more is needed to ensure adverse effects to The Broads SAC and Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI are avoided. There needs to be a greater push towards water storage when water is more available along with considering the appropriateness of crops grown nearby (those which have greater water requirements risk having a greater adverse impact on sensitive fen communities).
In making this comment, it is important to recognise that very small changes in water level or water chemistry within the root zone of fen plants can result in significant effects to the vegetation communities and plant species the fen supports. The natural, unrestricted upwelling of groundwater through springs are critically important in maintaining water levels and the chemical nature of the water and the fen. Any changes affecting this water source may not be noticed immediately and may manifest themselves many years after the change has been made. Equally reversing the damage is extremely challenging, expensive, may take decades and involve extensive land management operations and, in some cases, may be impossible.
Based on the potential harm to protected habitats and species in the Ant valley resulting from groundwater abstraction Anglian Water announced in October 2019 that they would cease abstraction from their borehole in Ludham. They announced plans for a £6.5m programme of works to install pipes to carry water from Norwich to Ludham.
The objective now must be to avoid any further deterioration and to reverse any damage which has been set in motion.
The issue being debated is complex, but the process that should be followed is straightforward and we need to find answers to the following questions:
- Is there a likely significant effect from water abstraction on Catfield Fen which needs more detailed assessment? The Environment Agency, Natural England and Broads Authority have all agreed this is the case.
- Can an adverse effect on The Broads SAC be ruled out? The Environment Agency evidence has not been able to demonstrate that it can safely be concluded that an adverse effect on the integrity of the site can be avoided. This is the position of Natural England and Broads Authority, and the RSPB strongly supports this position based on the currently available evidence.
- Where an adverse effect on The Broads SAC site integrity cannot be ruled out, the specific activity should not be permitted. The RSPB recognises there is a lot of information that has been collected to date and collection of this information is still ongoing. However, the available evidence remains uncertain. Independent experts have highlighted several serious limitations in the EA’s groundwater model, which mean that it is not sensitive enough to be used to determine individual abstraction licences in special cases like Catfield. The ecological evidence indicates Catfield Fen is being adversely affected and it is not possible to exclude water abstraction as a cause of the change. In these circumstances, the Precautionary Principle must be adopted.
While the RSPB is seriously concerned by the impact of groundwater abstraction, we are not advocating that agriculture ceases adjacent to Catfield Fen. However, we are advocating the need for water to be managed responsibly in the future to ensure that features of The Broads SAC and Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI are protected into the future (and enhanced where possible). We would be happy to investigate options that would enable maintenance of the internationally important wetlands and appropriate agriculture in the adjacent area. Working together it seems we can achieve this outcome, but this will require positive partnership work in the future. Anglian Water’s ‘Water Resources East’ is a great example of stakeholders working together to find ways to better manage our water resource making responsible decisions about the future of Catfield Fen and Sutton Fen.
RSPB were successful in a bid for funds from the Environment Agency’s Water Environment Grant in 2019. The proposal included setting up and analysing samples from hydrological monitoring points coupled with repeat monitoring of vegetation next to these points, reinstating overgrown ditches, selective removal of invading Sphagnum. RSPB hopes to gain valuable, additional hydrological information to help us understand how changes in groundwater is linked to vegetation change, to slow the spread of Sphagnum and hopefully start the process of restoring the fen.