Consequences of the 2016 Catfield Public Inquiry
1. In simple terms the Catfield Public Inquiry confirmed a link between water abstraction and environmental damage to the fens. The Ant valley investigation was instigated after the Harris’ experts objected to Ant river water abstraction to fill a reservoir to compensate for the loss of groundwater abstraction licences. They highlighted that the total volume of licensed abstraction represented a high proportion of Ant river flows.
2. In March 2018 the EA set up joint working parties of experts to consider the hydrological and ecological effects of abstraction on the Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI in the Ant river catchment. The Harris’ experts were included along with representatives of the NFU, RSPB, BA, etc. The ecological section of these consultative groups, including NE’s leading wetland expert, concluded that “no level of abstraction from naturalised“ could be scientifically demonstrated to be safe.
3. The EA once again has pursued a model-based inquiry and demonstrated major variances from naturalised, e.g. >50% for Catfield Fen, and initially ignored ecological evidence! However, this was partially reversed in December 2018 when NE visited a number of the more important cells and found signs of potentially adverse ecological change on all of them.
4. In January 2019 the EA together with NE agreed a formula, without reference to their consultative groups, of limiting abstraction to produce an effect of <5% variance from modelled naturalised, which they claimed to be justified by using as a “proxy” the Water Framework Directive(WFD) thresholds for ecologically sensitive rivers.
5. On this basis the EA began talks with 23 licence holders, including the PWS at Ludham, to reduce or eliminate their licences. These talks continue with the EA trying to find ways to minimise the effect on farmers.
6. The Harris’ experts have raised the following concerns:
6.1 There is no scientific justification for any variance from naturalised, certainly not the <5% supposedly based on the ecological condition of cells P,Q and R which the EA/NE assert are in “good hydrological condition” when there is firm ecological evidence to the contrary.
6.2 The use of the WFD thresholds for rivers as a “proxy” for marshes may be convenient but is not supported by scientific evidence.
6.3 The EA/NE have failed to respond to the evidence submitted by the Harris’ experts, particularly that they have failed to address the importance of flushing in the river and marshes which prevents rising salinity and other pollution, e.g. nitrates. The Harris’ experts have provided evidence that:
- salinity levels in the Ant are regularly above the EA’s own stated salinity threshold levels
- the EA’s own thresholds themselves are above those that Dutch research (Barendregt) and the Dutch Government set as acceptable
- there is evidence that relates the ecological health of the Ant marshes to distance from the river itself, i.e. the river is a source of damage.
The flushing issue is a critical one in that the EA/NE now accept, after the Catfield Inquiry, that groundwater abstraction is a problem which needs to be addressed, but see abstraction of water from the river to fill reservoirs as a remedy. If the flushing evidence is accepted then the EA/NE are faced with a major problem because this “way out” will be jeopardised, causing problems with not only farmers but also Anglian Water.
7. So far neither the EA nor NE have responded except that the EA have made it clear that they see NE as the body responsible for setting the ecological thresholds for their model. On the advice of Sir Norman Lamb the Harrises have approached the chief scientific officers of both Defra and NE in the attempt to get a considered scientific response. Communications with NE’s Dr Crick are ongoing at present.
NE has just (July 2019) produced an analysis of species extinctions in the Ant Valley which links a major wave of extinctions in the 1950s/1970s specifically to the onset of abstraction which supports and complements the submissions of the Harris’ experts.
8. Both the EA and NE now accept that abstraction has caused major problems in the Ant catchment and it is improbable that these issues will not be repeated in the other Broads river catchments, e.g. Bure, Thurne, Waveney, etc. Yet the EA has refused to address the wider issue which it claims must be considered on a licence by licence basis. The local heads of the EA and NE have recently met with Sir Norman Lamb and the Harrises to explain what they propose to do about this. Sir Norman has asked them for a written response but so far none has been forthcoming.
9. In September 2019 the Harrises became increasingly concerned about the endless delays, so reminiscent of their Catfield experience, and also that the EA were seeking a “pragmatically expedient” rather than scientifically valid solution. The EA seemed reluctant to recognise the scale of the problem let alone do anything about it. So, the Harrises once again felt compelled to take legal advice, this time from Freeths, as legal action had proved the decisive key to unlock progress on the Catfield case.
10. In response to Freeths’ questions the EA indeed confirmed, on 5.9.19, that their decision making had been “revised” from the end of August 2019 until “early in the new year 2020.” This persistent procrastination is exactly what happened at Catfield, causing a delay of 8 years before the Public Inquiry. And the major Ludham abstraction is only scheduled to cease in April 2021, that is 13 years after the alarm was first raised at Catfield. This despite specific evidence given by NE at the Public Inquiry that Catfield Fen could not wait 18 months and was at risk of being destroyed!