Gallery: Sir David Attenborough officially unveils newly-expanded Abberton Reservoir - which can now hold 41 billion litres of water

Sir David Attenborough reopened the Abberton Reservoir for Essex and Suffolk Water and Essex Wildlif

Sir David Attenborough reopened the Abberton Reservoir for Essex and Suffolk Water and Essex Wildlife Trust. The reservoir has had an enormous amount of work done to it as a reservoir and as a wildlife habitat. - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

Britain’s best-loved champion of the natural world marked the completion of a massive East Anglian reservoir expansion project today with a ringing endorsement of the way the scheme gives long-term water security to millions of people while offering them a “profoundly” important connection with nature.

Sir David Attenborough reopened the Abberton Reservoir for Essex and Suffolk Water and Essex Wildlif

Sir David Attenborough reopened the Abberton Reservoir for Essex and Suffolk Water and Essex Wildlife Trust. The reservoir has had an enormous amount of work done to it as a reservoir and as a wildlife habitat. - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

Sir David Attenborough officially marked the completion of a £150million enlargement of Abberton Reservoir, near Colchester. The capacity of the Essex & Suffolk Water reservoir has been increased by 58% to 41 billion litres, securing water supplies to 1.5 million people in Essex far into the future. Since its original construction in the 1930s the reservoir has also become one of the most important wildlife sites in Britain, earning national, European and global designations for the numbers of bird species its supports.

Before unveiling an engraved commemorative stone to mark the completion of the expansion and enhancement work, Sir David paid tribute to the collaborative approach adopted in the scheme by Essex & Suffolk Water and Essex Wildlife Trust.

The trust runs the site’s imaginatively designed visitor centre and a 48-hectare nature reserve on the reservoir’s fringes and Sir David, a President Emeritus of The Wildlife Trusts umbrella organisation that unites 47 county trusts across Britain, said their joint work was an “astonishing partnership”.

The venerated octogenarian naturalist and broadcaster told ceremony guests: “I can remember a time that doesn’t seem like a long time ago, when development and conservation were seen as being mutually in opposition – you either had development or conservation – and that led to confrontation, arguments and not necessarily the conclusions that pleased everybody. Today is fundamentally, extraordinarily, wonderfully different.”

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The new reservoir, which will bolster water supplies to the Chelmsford, Basildon, Brentwood, Southend and Thurrock areas as well as the London boroughs of Barking, Dagenham, Havering and Redbridge, was a creation that provided “wonderment” for local people as a result the opportunities it gave them for wildlife experiences and a “godsend” to the people who would depend its water.

“The UN tells us that over 50% of the human population now live in towns and cities and are urbanised to some degree, so over half of the world’s population is to some extent cut off from the natural world. Does that matter? It matters profoundly,” said Sir David.

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“We need the natural world, we depend on the natural world for every breath of air we take and every mouthful of food comes from the natural world. If we despoil the natural world we despoil ourselves.”

Only with contact with the natural world could humans fully understand its importance. Nature would in future be under increasing pressure and, in a changing climate in which the globe was warming, water was becoming “increasingly precious” - with Essex deemed the driest county in Britain. Collaborations such as the one involving Essex & Suffolk Water and Essex Wildlife Trust – an “astonishing partnership that I see and celebrate” – were “crucially important”, he said.

The ceremony was attended by representatives of a huge range of local organisations involved in the scheme, including many local schoolchildren, and among the guests was naturalist and broadcaster Bill Oddie, who in 1990 officially opened the site’s visitor centre that had to be replaced as a result of the new scheme.

John Devall, Essex & Suffolk Water’s water director, said Abberton Reservoir was now “living proof that we can plan and complete a major water supply project and actually protect and enhance the natural environment at the same time. We have shown what engineers and conservationists can achieve when they share a common goal”.

Essex Wildlife Trust chief executive officer John Hall said the reservoir was “man-made, made by hard graft and ingenuity.”

He added: “We have given nature an additional opportunity, and it is an opportunity which nature will take.”

History of a reservoir – see special report on Abberton in our eaenvironment supplement on Saturday.

The numbers

Abberton Reservoir’s vital statistics really are vital – for the 1.5 million people who depend on the Essex & Suffolk Water site for their supplies and for hundreds of thousands of birds that depend on it as a safe haven.

The reservoir’s original 26 billion-litre volume has increased to 41 billion in the £150million expansion and enhancement scheme. It provides an additional 64m litres of water a day for the company’s Essex supply area – enough to supply more than 400,000 people.

The maximum depth has increased from 14 metres to 17 metres. The reservoir’s original surface area of 4.714 million sq m has risen to 6.612 million sq m. The expansion required the building of a new Essex Wildlife Trust visitor centre – the old one is now submerged – and diversion of a 1.8km section of the B1026 road. Public access for walking, cycling and horse riding has been enhanced, from 4km of routes to 16km. Carillion plc was awarded the massive construction contract in December 2009, with completion taking place last year.

The reservoir’s importance for wildlife has long been recognised and it has several key designations. Under EU Birds Directive legislation it is a Special Protection Area, a UK Site of Special Scientific Interest and has international prominence as a Ramsar Site, protected under the Convention on Wetlands signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971.

About 30,000 birds visit the reservoir annually – 13 species of waterfowl do so in nationally important numbers. It is especially renowned for the winter haven it affords to more than 20,000 waterfowl, many arriving from vast and distant swathes of northern Europe.

In summer it is home to a nationally important colony of tree-nesting cormorants and Essex Wildlife Trust hopes to attract to the site bittern and osprey as additional and iconic breeding species.

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