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Thursday, 3 October, 2002, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
English and Welsh rivers 'improving'
The otter has returned to some rivers

English and Welsh rivers are cleaner than at any time since records began, the Environment Agency says.

It says urban rivers have started catching up with rural ones.

Its annual survey of over 40,000 kilometres (25,000 miles) of rivers and canals says the substantial improvements since 1990 have been sustained.

River quality is one of the UK Government's 15 headline indicators of sustainable development.

In 2001, 95% of rivers (or 38,567 km) in England and Wales were found to be of good or fair chemical quality, 1% more than in 2000 and 10% up on 1990.

The number of rivers classed as chemically "bad" dropped to 0.3%, 133 km (0.4% in 2000 and 2.4% in 1990).

Otters return

Urban rivers were historically polluted by industry, sewage overflows, road run-off, and domestic plumbing misconnections.

But the agency says they are showing "something of a renaissance", although figures still show that around one in eight is categorised as "poor" or "bad".

The agency says the decline of industry over the last two decades, and tighter regulations since 1990, have resulted in "vast" improvements in river quality.

In 2001, nearly 87% of urban rivers were found to have good or fair water quality, compared with 80% in 2000 and 57% in 1990.

The River Tyne in north-east England is now recording the best salmon catch statistics for England and Wales. Signs of otters are being found in urban catchments in the English Midlands, as rivers become clean enough to support sustainable fish populations and thus top predators.

Vulnerable zones

Salford Quays in Manchester - once so polluted that no fish survived - was the venue of the long-distance swimming leg of the 2002 Commonwealth Games triathlon.

The agency also says phosphate levels in rivers, which help to cause eutrophication, or unlimited growth of water plants, have fallen since 1990.

In 2001, 54% of all surveyed rivers were found to have high concentrations of phosphates, 10% fewer than in the first survey in 1990.

The agency says the reduction is likely to result in part from more stringent treatment carried out at sewage works by water companies, as well as changes in the chemical make-up of detergents.

Nitrate levels - which have not declined in the same way as phosphates - have been found in high concentrations in 30% of all rivers since 1995.

To address this, the government says it will announce new nitrate vulnerable zones shortly in affected areas to reduce nitrate pollution from farming land.

Farming changes

Levels of key nutrients, such as phosphate and nitrate, are highest in the Midlands, East and South of the country where population density is highest and farming methods the most intense.

Sir John Harman, chairman of the Environment Agency, said: "The improvement to urban rivers is good news, but more work needs to be done.

"Clearly all urban rivers are still not as clean as they could be. We are working hard to persuade planners and developers to use sustainable urban drainage systems, which collect and treat urban run-off before it reaches rivers."

Researchers addressing the British Association's science festival in Leicester last month said a new directive from Brussels could lead to radical changes in the way agricultural land was managed across Europe, with some types of farming being scaled back or even abandoned in some of their traditional areas.

The Water Framework Directive will require all rivers, lakes and canals to be returned to "good ecological quality" within 15 years - and the measure of quality will be far tougher than it is now.

Scientists at the festival said that to comply with this new regime, pollution - such as from the leaching of fertilisers from fields - would have to be more tightly controlled than it is now.

The BBC's Kevin Bocquet in Liverpool
"It was the decline of heavy industry which allowed rivers to become clean"
See also:

09 Sep 02 | Leicester 2002
05 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
20 Apr 01 | Science/Nature
20 Apr 01 | UK
20 Apr 01 | UK
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