The latest results from the Environment Agency’s annual assessment of river quality show slight improvement in the key indicator of water biology – with 71% of rivers now classified as ‘very good’ or ‘good’ – but no real change in the key indicator of water chemistry, with a stable 65% of rivers meeting the criteria for the top two grades.

However, nutrient levels are still reported as high in a large proportion of the rivers. Nitrates, principally from agricultural chemicals, were reported at high levels in 29% of total river length in 2004, while phosphate levels were high in 53% of rivers.

This represents a slight decrease from 2003 levels but is still higher than in 1995.

“Our top two indicators show that our water environment is generally healthy, but we have seen an improvement in quality in recent years, reflecting the fact that a lot of the big sewage and industrial problems of the past have been addressed through investment,” said Tricia Henton, Director of Environmental Protection for the Agency.

“When we look at other indicators, however, we can see the impact of myriad small and diffuse sources of pollution and nutrients from sewage works. Together, these are preventing further progress in improving the quality of water and its associated wildlife.”

The Agency estimates that, in order to meet new EU standards of the ecological health of water bodies in line with the Water Framework Directive, 82% of river water bodies may need action to address the diffuse impacts of rural and urban run-off.

This will require concerted action to design and build better drainage for housing and roads in order to intercept and trap contaminants in surface water; reducing pollution risks from contaminated land by ensuring it is treated to high standards, and working with farmers to reduce diffuse pollution from agriculture.

By David Hopkins

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