August 8, 2022

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When the water company executive arrived, John Barker presented him with a bucket of dead...

When the water company executive arrived, John Barker presented him with a bucket of dead fish. It was September 2020. Barker was furious. The fish came from the River Ems, which winds for six miles from Stoughton, West Sussex, to Chichester Harbour.
Barker, 68, a retired environmental campaigner, owns a sustainable farm in the village of Westbourne. The Ems flows through it. Barker prizes it because it is one of only 200 chalk streams in the world. Shallow and clear, the streams rise from chalk aquifers and springs, and are beloved by many – 85% of the world’s chalk streams are in England.

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But across England, over-abstraction by water companies over decades has been damaging the balance of these unique streams, and the wildlife they harbour. (Abstraction means taking water from any source.) “Our chalk streams desperately need support,” says Barker, “and for people to stop hammering them.”

That’s one of the most beautiful things about chalk streams. The water is so clean and clear
John Barker

For years, he had watched, incensed, as the water level in the Ems grew steadily lower – water was being siphoned from the aquifer that feeds it by utility company Portsmouth Water. Then, in 2020, it finally happened. In Westbourne, the Ems ran dry. “Portsmouth Water,” says Barker, “have, as part of their abstraction licence, a commitment to pump water back into the river if the flow gets low. But its pumps failed and its alarms didn’t work. The river dried up in the village for the first time in living memory.” Barker felt utter desperation.
He had co-founded the Friends of the River Ems earlier that year. “John is a quiet achiever,” says Sandy Barker, a fellow Friend. “He gets a lot done and wears his considerable expertise lightly.”

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John with his new GoPro underwater camera. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian
When the river dried up, Barker’s group sprang into action. “There were shallow pools of water with trout swimming around, getting picked off by herons.” They collected the fish in buckets and ferried them to a nearby lake. But not all of them could be saved. Hence the bucket of dead fish. When the executive saw them, “he held his hands up”, Barker remembers. A spokesperson for Portsmouth Water said the company was “absolutely committed” to protecting the Ems and working closely with Friends of the Ems and the Environment Agency. (It accepted that the river ran dry, and that this was not initially noticed because of a communications fault, but said the weather was also partly to blame.)
Barker is now working with Portsmouth Water to prevent this catastrophe from happening again. The villagers measure the depth of the River Ems at 15 points. “We call it spring watch,” Barker says. Portsmouth Water has agreed to put sensors in the river to monitor water levels, and the Environment Agency is looking at the details of its abstraction licence. “None of these things would have happened if it wasn’t for the Friends of the Ems,” says Barker.
But the problem with Britain’s water goes far deeper. Recent months have seen intense public scrutiny of water companies. Barker is scathing about the £90m fine paid by Southern Water for dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into the sea. “It should also be against human nature to do that.”
Barker wants the environment agency to be given more resources, and further investment to put water back into Britain’s waterways. “We need more water,” he says, “whether it’s through reservoirs or recycling.” With more water in the system, companies may not need to rely on abstraction, but this sort of infrastructure costs money. Barker also wants to raise awareness about the situation of many English chalk streams. “We need to keep up the pressure on water companies,” he says.
Barker has bought a stay of execution for the River Ems, for now. But without significant investment in infrastructure, he thinks his efforts will probably be just a sticking plaster. “If we’re successful with the Ems,” he says, “and get the water company to stop drawing from us now, they’ll just take water from another place on the aquifer.”

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Barker requests an underwater camera from Guardian Angel, to monitor the quality of the water and check for dangerous algae. Camera company GoPro provides a camera he can use in the Ems. We catch up after he’s tested it on a chilly winter afternoon. “It’s going to be really useful,” he says. “We can use it to catch some of the wildlife, and to show people how special these chalk streams are. Because that’s one of the most beautiful things about them. The water is so clean and clear.”
He plans to send a live stream from the camera to the Friends of the River Ems website. “The more people understand how precious the river is,” Barker says, “the better it will be.”
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