There are fears that water levels in the River Meon could be drastically reduced if a wetland scheme is allowed to go ahead.
Anger is mounting in parishes in the upper reaches of the River Meon over an alleged attempt to fast-track a planning application for a pioneering “wetland” nitrate filtration scheme that threatens to further diminish water flows in the river.
It is claimed the application, which was approved on July 9th by the South Downs National Park subject to certain conditions being met, has been “railroaded” through the planning process in the hope that it will be followed by other similar schemes.
Whitewool Farm, which has a tributary of the Meon running through it near its source, proposes to remove 35,000 tons of soil to create an artificial 18 acre “wetland” for a reed bed designed to filter harmful nitrate run-off from cows.
“We are concerned that the planning application for Whitewool Farm, granted provisional approval by the National Park, was rushed through during lockdown without proper consultation with affected parties,” said Mark Rogers, Chairman of Warnford Parish Meeting.
“Those living along the river Meon, especially in its upper reaches, received no notice of the application flagged as an engineering project rather than a proposal to divert the river to create a new wetland where none had existed previously.”
A number of concerns over the Whitewool scheme raised among those attending the SDNP meeting were largely ignored in the interests of passing the application, described by some as being “rushed through prematurely.”
Ruth Childs, landscape officer for the SDNP, who changed an initial “objection” to the scheme to “neutral”, said she had “no confidence that (the newly-created) wetland could be kept wet” in long dry summer months.
She said wetlands are suited to landscapes where water is stored on the surface, which is not the case in the headwaters chalk streams like the Meon at Whitewool where water is largely stored underground.
“I don’t feel able to support this application. I have no confidence that these habitats will remain wet so that rather than getting the benefits, we will have grasslands created which (are not) the rare riparian habitats we would like to see in that valley,” she said.
Andrew Shaxon questioned why the application had been rushed through and that there were real “grounds for deferral. We need answers to our queries before taking a decision. Ruth (Childs) is most uncomfortable about changing her position from objecting to neutral.”
William Meyer told the planning meeting he was “extremely uncomfortable” with the scheme to which he was formally objecting. “I think the landscape officer has struggled with this and is clearly not committed.”
The Whitewool Farm proposal will be the first of its kind to require planning permission and so form a “blueprint” for similar schemes along the length of the Meon.
A group of locals spearheading opposition to the scheme accepts that its motivations are laudable in principle, but abstracting water from the Meon near its source into dry pasture “carried a high risk of failure and be of no benefit below the farm.“
The SDNP meeting was told that hydrology surveys for the project were taken in winter months when the river sometimes comes close to flooding. It remained unclear how the “wetland” would be maintained during summer months, Ms Childs said.
It is claimed that efforts to contact the SDNP by concerned parties have been been in vain and that calls have not been returned and emails not responded to.
Riparian owners, including local landowners, farmers and people in villages along the Meon valley have joined in seeking to block the planning in the absence of proper consultation.
“There are grave doubts over the sustainability of the scheme. The newly created wetland would have to be maintained with the help of underground bore holes, abstracting precious water to the surface where its evaporation would be exacerbated,” Andrew Sellick, a local farmer said.
“Such schemes may be successful in the existing flood planes of the Meon but not in this dry upper chalk area of the South Downs valley.“
If the SDNP fail to respond to formal requests to halt the planning until there has been proper consultation, the local action committee are planning to engage lawyers to fight the scheme with a Judicial Review.
Objections include an apparent lack of acknowledgement by the applicant and the local planning authority that an Abstraction Licence will be needed to take water from a watercourse to put into a newly created wetland.
“There is a real prospect of derogation of water flows in the river Meon by percolation and evaporation from the proposed wetland in both the short and long term compounded by predictions of adverse climate change,” Mr Sellick said.
“We are concerned about the impact of this on the river’s wildlife and ecology and the impact on the communities who rely on the river for their amenity value including their physical and mental health.”
There are further grave concerns that an ambitious SDNP project to re-introduce water voles to the river in recent years is likely to fail if water levels fall any further.