Government denies creative accounting over river improvements

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) has shown some ingenuity in its report that the quality of the UK’s rivers has broken a new record, according to Water and Waste Treatment(WWT).


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According to the DETR’s figures, released on 21 September, 95% of rivers in the UK were rated ‘good’ or ‘fair’ for chemical quality in 1999, compared with 92% in 1990. But, according to WWT’s Technical Editor, Peter Minting, these figures are open to question, due to a degree of statistical uncertainty.

The percentage of ‘good’ rivers in Northern Ireland actually declined from 1990 to 1999, and in a footnote the report states: “1999 figures are not directly comparable with those for earlier years because the length of rivers more than doubled between 1995 and 1999. The apparent deterioration in quality should therefore be treated with caution.” But, Minting says, the number of ‘fair’ rather than ‘good’ rivers in Northern Ireland has been included for 1995 to 1999, and the number has increased to such a degree that it will have an effect on the overall score. In other words, whilst discrediting the data which appears to show a decline, the DETR has accepted data showing an improvement.

“I take your point, but I don’t think we’ve really been trying to massage the figures,” a DETR spokesperson told Minting. “There is so much information to take into account that it is difficult to come to a meaningful conclusion.”

The Environmental Agency (EA), Minting says, has produced a far more straightforward report (see related story). Here, river quality is said to have improved across England and Wales, with 92% reported as ‘good or fair’ in 1999, compared with 85% in 1990.

In the EA study, around 3,300 km of the 40,530 km of rivers tested in England and Wales are still graded as ‘poor or bad’. This means they show unsatisfactory levels of the parameters tested, including biological and chemical oxygen demand, ammonia and dissolved oxygen.

Several of the most polluted rivers are tributaries of the Thames, including the Yeading Brook near Uxbridge and the Lower Lee in East London. Although the River Lee has improved in the upper reaches, thanks to improvements at Luton sewage treatment works, further downstream urban run-off from the Stratford area still creates a serious problem.

Others named and shamed include the Scotia Brook in the Midlands, River Leigh downstream of Mendip sewage treatment works and River Chelt below Cheltenham sewage treatment works. The most marked improvements have been in the Midlands and northern England.

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