On new year’s day 2023 there was a trickle of flow on the River Ivel at Radwell but upstream it remained dry since April simply because Affinity Water continued to abstract as much water as they could physically suck out of the boreholes above Ivel Springs.
A December 1955 newspaper article warning of impending water shortages concluded “Careful technical research is necessary into the balance between rainfall, percolation into the chalk and proposed extraction of water from the chalk by 1973 and after”.
1955 was a time when post war development surrounding London was really getting going; the new towns at Stevenage and Harlow were being built, and huge new estates were popping up around every town; for example the Grange and Jackmans estates nearly doubled the population of Letchworth.
With all this new development, the government recognized the chalk aquifer was not going to be able to deliver all the required water fairly soon, so, unlike today, they actually did something about it, and they did it, by today’s standards, very quickly.
The Great Ouse Water Act received royal assent on 3rd August 1961. At an estimated cost of £12,887,000 (£317 million in today’s money) the Act provided for a new “Diddington Reservoir”, a pumping station on the bank of the river Great Ouse with which to fill the new reservoir, a water treatment works next to the reservoir, and plumbing to carry clean water in bulk in four directions, to Wellingborough, Bedford, Ampthill and Sundon, to be injected into existing local networks.
The act also provided for an allocation of that water: The Lee Valley Water Company and the Luton Water company were to receive at the new Sundon service reservoir a combined average of 81,829,000 litres per day, or 44% of total Diddington output.
Renamed “Grafham water” by popular local demand, they started filling the new reservoir in December 1964. Once it was full, and the recreational and wildlife infrastructure was completed, it was inaugurated with great fanfare by the Duke of Edinburgh in July 1966.
The act provided for a review of entitlements once the pipelines, pumping stations and service reservoirs were fully operational, and this came in the form of the Great Ouse Water Order 1971 (Statutory Instrument No 2196 of 1971). It said that by 1976 the total output from Grafham would be 55% greater than originally estimated, and nearly half of it, 47%, was allocated to the two water companies receiving water at Sundon. The Luton Water Co. got a modest 8% increase, but the Lee Valley Water Co. got a massive 183% increase which reflected the huge amount of new and planned housing in their operational area and perhaps recognition that excessive abstractions from the chalk aquifer in the region could result in lasting environmental damage.
On 1st January 1973, The Luton Water Company was taken over by the Lee Valley Water Company which gave them total control of all imports to Sundon from Grafham. In 1994 the Colne Valley, Rickmansworth and Lee Valley Water companies merged to form Three Valleys Water plc. Veolia Water UK took control at privatization in 1987, and in 2012 that business was purchased by a consortium which renamed it Affinity Water. In May 2017, Allianz together with its partners acquired 100 percent of the equity interest in Affinity Water.
Anglian Water took control of Grafham and its plumbing at privatization in 1987.
During this period, any concern for the environment seems to have been overwhelmed by corporate interests and all the complicated company restructuring and privatizations which went on. The bottom line is that it is a bit cheaper to abstract water from the aquifer than import it from Grafham, so today, much more water is abstracted from the Baldock boreholes than in the 1970’s, and there’s no water in our river.
Some parts of the 1961 Act and the 1971 Statutory Instrument have been repealed, but today it appears that the entitlements to water from Grafham remain exactly as parliament ordered more than 50 years ago in December 1971; Affinity Water, owned by a German multinational financial services company headquartered in Munich, Germany, has the right to bulk import an average of 136,000,000 litres per day from Grafham into Sundon for injection into the Affinity Water network.
Today, the OFWAT Water trading (‘Bulk supplies’) register shows how much Anglian Water is exporting, and how much Affinity is importing from Grafham. For some reason each company has declared slightly different numbers, but in the last three years it would appear an average of 53,804,924 litres of clean water arrived at Sundon every day.
On the face of it then, Affinity are under-utilizing their rights to water from Grafham by as much as 60% or 82 million litres per day, but there is a note in the Affinity transfer registers which says Ordinarily we can take 76 million litres/day average entitlement, to 94 million litres/day peak entitlement. What this means is difficult to say, but it doesn’t appear to align very well with the entitlements issued by Parliament in 1971.
Even then, it would appear that Affinity has at least 22 million litres/day spare capacity which is more than double that needed for the implementation of the Chalk Streams First principle on the Ivel as described in the Lawson Report which proposes Affinity Water back off abstraction at the source of the Ivel to a sustainable 10% of recharge and import the rest of the water they need from lower down the river via Grafham as parliament had intended.
In an October 2022 joint statement in response to the Lawson Report, Affinity Water and Anglian Water claimed that the terms of Great Ouse Water Act imposed limitations on the increased volume of water they would need to import, and they claimed the infrastructure is not adequate to accommodate any increase in volume above the current capacity. Given what is said above you can make up your own mind on why they say this or whether it’s really true, but they do concede it will be necessary to dedicate resources for a feasibility study on the proposal that could start as initial desk-based approach fairly soon.
All of the agencies involved in water infrastructure in the South East of England agree that the real solution is more reservoirs and more water transfers, but they are also all masters at kicking cans down the road; they’ve been talking about new reservoirs for 40 years, and may well continue talking about them for another 40. By today’s standards, it is totally miraculous that an infrastructure problem identified in 1955 resulted in a very large new reservoir at Grafham being filled just 9 years later.
To revIvel, it looks like the entitlements to water from Grafham and the infrastructure capacity to bring it to this area already exist, thus, if there was a will, our river could be saved quite quickly and at very low-cost.
Our job, your job, everyone’s job for 2023 is to persuade Affinity Water, Anglian Water, The Environment Agency, Water Resources East and anyone else who will listen, to stop kicking cans and implement the solution the Lawson Report proposes sooner rather than later.