Water abstraction is the removal of water from the river for purposes other than hydro electric generation. The River Spey currently has 45 abstractions consented by SEPA, including major transfers out of the catchment from Spey Dam to Fort William by Rio Tinto Alcan, from Loch An-t Seilich (River Tromie) in to the River Tay system by Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) and at the Dipple Wellfield (by Scottish Water) near Fochabers.

The Spey Fishery Board has been concerned for some time about the level of water abstraction and transfer from the Spey and until 2006 believed that the River was currently losing 20% of its water as a result.

A substantial amount of water is abstracted by British Alcan at Spey Dam.In September 2006, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and SSE proposed to reduce the flow down the River Tromie, an important tributary of the Spey, and to provide small Compensation Flows down the Rivers Cuaich and Allt’ Sluie which lead into the Truim near Dalwhinnie. This was proposed in order to meet their conflicting responsibilities of achieving “good ecological potential” under the Water Framework Directive whilst also maintaining Scotland’s renewable energy policies through the production of hydro-electricity. The River Spey is designated as a Special Area of Conservation under the EC Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and Wild Fauna and Flora 92/43/EC (known as the Habitats Directive), for its populations of Atlantic Salmon, Otter, Sea Lamprey and Freshwater Pearl Mussel. These populations are, therefore, afforded the very highest level of environmental protection available under European Union legislation.  In addition, The River Spey is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

In April 2007, Scottish Water dug exploratory boreholes south of Aviemore, an area which has been traditionally supplied by Loch Einich in the Cairngorms, in order to resolve Badenoch & Strathspey’s water supply problems due to new housing developments, principally around Aviemore.

The Spey Fishery Board has been concerned that the cumulative impact of these new proposals, on top of the high level of water abstraction already in place, will produce lower water flows that have an adverse impact on the ecology of the River Spey and the species within it, including Atlantic Salmon and Sea Trout. Accordingly, in August 2007 the Directors of the Spey Fishing Trust Limited and the Spey Fishery Board voted unanimously to commission independent specialist consultants Envirocentre to report on all water abstractions and compensation flows throughout the Spey Catchment, both those existing and those now being proposed, as well as their likely impacts upon the River.

Envirocentre produced their Report in April 2008.   It showed that up to 20% of the mean annual water flow to Spey Bay was currently being abstracted and recommended that measures be put in place to maximise the management of the existing flows before any new proposals were considered. It also showed that if the new proposals were to proceed, they would equate to an abstraction 1.6 times that of the Dipple Wellfield at Fochabers (which is licensed to abstract 27 million gallons of water per day), but this time in the Upper rather than Lower River with a corresponding impact downstream. The Report was widely distributed to all Proprietors, MSPs, MPs, Scottish Natural Heritage, SEPA, Local Authorities, Rio Tinto Alcan, SSE and the principal water users. Download the a copy of the Envirocentre Report here or a powerpoint presentation reviewing water abstraction on the Spey can aslo be viewed here.

The Spey Fishery Board has subsequently established a dialogue with SEPA, SSE and Rio Tinto Alcan to review the findings of the Report and discuss its concerns. The Spey Fishery Board has been working hard to promote a holistic approach towards the management of this important water resource if the designated species are not be affected by man’s interventions. The Board has maintained that if more water is to be taken from certain parts of the catchment, this must be mitigated by the release of additional water (known as compensation flows) from other parts of the catchment if the ecology of this environmentally sensitive area is not to suffer.

Despite representations by the Spey Fishery Board, Scottish Water was granted Planning Permission for their borehole development by the Cairngorms National Park Planning Committee in September 2009, following the grant of a Controlled Activity Regulation Licence (for the water abstraction) by SEPA earlier in the year. Construction of the boreholes is likely to start in 2010.