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No solutions on tap as Panorama reveals how we are destroying the Kennet

All the environmental danger signals were there to be seen in abundance, plus the top experts spouting the solutions that are urgently needed.

Even the people miles away who don’t realise that rare and fragile chalk rivers like the Kennet that flows through Marlborough are being drained just to flush their loos.

But what became dramatically exposed by Monday’s Panorama programme on BBC1 was the fact that in these tough times there isn’t either the funding or the urgent political will to carry out the vital rescue operation needed.

And even the programme itself had been waylaid from being originally shown in August after being filmed on the Kennet with the co-operation of ARK, which has been fighting for almost 20 years to save the river.

“Yes indeed, a good summary of our problems which I prophetically mentioned last week,” Marlborough MP Claire Perry (pictured), one of the Kennet campaigners, told Marlborough News Online, who saw the programme.

She has been badgering neighbouring Newbury MP Richard Benyon, the junior Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister now working on a Water White Paper aimed at protecting England’s rivers but still a long way from creating new legislation.

"I am continuing to monitor the problems over abstraction and the Kennet water flow closely,” said Mrs Perry.  “I will be meeting Richard Benyon along with the World Wildlife Fund and ARK on the Kennet, probably in Hungerford, next Friday to review flow levels.”

“We must have a more realistic licensing and abstraction charging scheme in place as soon as possible".

That has been the message ARK has been promulgating since Thames Water began to increase its extraction of water from Axford – albeit legally – to feed the households of Swindon.

Yet despite all the sympathetic noises the fact remains that the Environment Agency doesn’t have the £10 million needed to build a pipeline link to Swindon that would ease the problem of providing more and more water for urban areas.

So it was that Panorama viewers saw how the fish and wildlife are disappearing from the Kennet and other rivers while householders have no clues how to reduce their water consumption and unashamedly allow the precious Kennet to end up pouring out of their showers and down their drains.

Charlotte Hitchmaugh (pictured), ARK’s determined director, based in Manton, who was seen in the programme detailing the dangers, put the Panorama show into context for Marlborough News Online.
Charlotte Hitchmaugh, Director of ARK

“We filmed Panorama in July/August this summer, after speaking to them on and off for a couple of years,” she revealed.  “But then the programme was delayed because of the city riots and we were told only a few days beforehand that it was to be broadcast on Monday.”

“The problem is that too much water is taken from the underground aquifers which feed our rivers to supply homes and businesses.  The abstraction at Axford takes water from aquifer which feeds the River Kennet and exports it to Swindon -- and the water never returns to the Kennet.”

“The abstraction damages the river's ecology, leading to a gradual decline in river life.  The animals living along the Kennet include brown trout, kingfishers, water vole and otters.”

“ARK has reached agreement with the Environment Agency (EA) and Thames Water that a reduced licence at Axford is needed, but  nothing has yet been done on the ground.  In fact, earlier this year the EA renewed Thames Water's abstraction license despite clear and critical issues of over abstraction.”

“In addition Thames Water are, this week, putting more pipework in the ground in Aldbourne and Ramsbury which will enable them to abstract even more water from the borehole at Ramsbury.”

“Thames Water has made a public  commitment to reduce abstraction from the Kennet aquifer, which is great news,  but ARK want to see a clear time-table for action.”

“We are waiting for Thames Water and the Environment Agency to reach agreement on how the work is funded.”

However, Thames Water is currently taking advantage of the existing law which allows them to be compensated by the taxpayer for work they do to protect the environment.

Meanwhile, ARK are working with Claire Perry, government minister Richard Benyon and WWF-UK to make sure that new legislation protects rivers.

“And we will keep up the pressure on Thames Water and the Environment Agency to reduce abstraction at Axford,” declared Charlotte.

“The example of the Kennet highlights a bigger issue, which is that current legislation permits water companies to abstract too much water from the aquifers which feed our fragile chalk streams.

“We are destroying our rivers, and the problem will only get worse as demand for water grows.”

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