Major environmental changes have taken place to the River Kennet, one of Britain’s rare chalk streams, since the safety alert in July when possibly just two teaspoons of the highly toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos polluted the river.
An intensive investigation has yet to discover who was responsible for the disaster, which occurred in the Marlborough stretch of the river, but scientific research by Imperial College, London, has produced significant results.
This was revealed to some 70 members of Action on the River Kennet (ARK) at its annual general meeting in Hungerford on Thursday, which was attended by representatives of the Environment Agency, North Wessex Downs Area of National Beauty and Richard Aylard, Thames Water’s director of external affairs and sustainability.
“So far the scientific research is showing that the whole base of the food chain has been removed and fish are altering their diets to adapt to the new conditions,” ARK director Charlotte Hitchmough told Marlborough News Online.
“That is partly by eating more terrestrial invertebrates, more smaller fish and small crayfish. At the moment there is no sign of the large fish suffering, but the smaller fish, like bullheads, have very reduced numbers and this may impact bit fish over time as there are fewer small fish for the big fish to eat.”
The newly-published information, she pointed out, is so “hot off the press” that it has yet to be fully analysed as the Imperial College team continues its research to see how the river’s recovery progresses.
ARK chairman Geoffrey Findlay reported the extensive meetings and research taking place since the pollution occurred and a safety alert was issued.
“The rapid response and follow-up actions of all concerned were a good example of voluntary sector and public partners working together, demonstrating the new popular phrase of “citizen science” he said, referring to the phrase used for by Richard Benyon MP, the former government Rivers Minister.
But he revealed continuing disappointing results on the political front, describing the Water Bill published in July as showing “little of the urgency ARK and the World Wildlife Fund UK have been urging, and says little about the Government’s green credentials.”
He welcomed the proposed ending of the payment of compensation to water companies to change their abstraction licences – a more cost-effective and quicker route for dealing with unsustainable abstraction.
But he added: “We were, though, disappointed to see the disbandment of the Environmental Group in OFWAT, after only a brief existence, and are making our concerns known.
“A further disappointment has been progress on Thames Water’s north-south Swindon pipeline to relieve the pressure on abstraction from Axford.
“Early this year, Thames Water told us and Claire Perry MP that planning the pipeline was underway, on the assumption that financial negotiations with the Environment Agency would be successful.
“Given the necessary land acquisitions and permissions, a realistic best case for the pipeline being in service was early 2015, a worst case would not see completion until some time in 2016.
“In July, without warning, we were told by the Environment Agency that everything had been put on hold while they considered the implications of the scheme for the rest of the Upper Kennet.
“This we contested vigorously, along with partners in the Kennet Catchment Partnership. We have since been told that some planning is continuing, but that financing for the whole project has still not been finalised.”
With no revised timetable yet available, Mr Findlay said ARK would continue lobbying the government’s new Rivers Minister George Eustice, the MP for Camborne and Redruth.
Finally, he added: “Despite some disappointments over the past 12 months, I am delighted to introduce this report on another year of great achievements and positive results.
“They are thanks entirely to our indefatigable director Charlotte Hitchmough, her growing team of Carolyn White, Anna Forbes and Helen Kelly, and our small army of volunteers – now past the 100 mark and giving well over 1,000 hours of their time each year to ARK projects.
“And my thanks to our loyal members and our partners, including Marlborough Town Council, Ramsbury Parish Council, WWFUK, the Rivers Trust, the Angling Trust and the North Wessex Downs AONB.”