Rivers and estuaries in England and Wales “probably cleaner than they have been since before the industrial revolution”

The latest survey by the Environment Agency (EA) reveals a substantial improvement in the chemical quality of English and Welsh rivers since 1990, with 94% classified as of ‘good’ or ‘fair’ quality in 2000, and for the first time, aesthetic quality is also assessed.


The EA says that its samples from about 7,000 river and canal sites have shown a 9% increase in chemical quality since 1990, when fully independent river quality assessments were first carried out. The results show that some 96% of estuaries are also of ‘good’ or ‘fair’ quality, compared with 90% in 1990. Across the UK as a whole, the proportion of rivers rated as having ‘good’ or ‘fair’ chemical quality in 2000 stands at about 95%, the same as in 1999 (see related story), although the EA asserted that rivers and estuaries in England and Wales are “probably cleaner than they have been since before the industrial revolution”. In England, 94% of rivers and canals were of “good” or “fair” chemical and biological quality in 2000, up 3% on the previous year. In addition, 90.4% of all UK rivers met their river quality objectives in 2000, compared with 87% in 1999.

Just 5% of rivers and canals in England and Wales were ranked as ‘poor’ and less than 1% as ‘bad’ in 2000, compared to 15% falling into these two bottom categories in 1990. The majority of high quality rivers continue to be in Wales and the west of England, especially in and around the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and rural East Anglia.

Apart from chemical quality, the EA’s General Quality Assessment also measures the biological, nutrient, and, for the first time, aesthetic quality of waterways. In terms of biological water quality, 94% of 6,500 sites in England and Wales were ranked as ‘good’ or ‘fair’ in 2000, compared to 87% in 1990. In 2000, some 60% of UK rivers had high concentrations of phosphate, compared with 67% 10 years before, and ongoing investment by water companies to remove phosphate at sewage-treatment works affecting designated sensitive areas is expected to continue the downward trend.

In terms of the aesthetic quality of English and Welsh rivers, a total of 452 river sites which are regularly visited by the public were selected for grading for three parameters: litter comprising gross litter, general litter, sewage litter and dog faeces; oil, surface scum, foam, sewage fungus, and ochre; and colour and odour. Overall, 68% of the surveyed sites were graded as ‘good’ or ‘fair’ quality. The North West of England had the best aesthetic grading, with 85% of sites rated as ‘good’ or ‘fair’, while the Midlands region fared the worst, with just 49% of sites achieving these gradings. Litter ranging from shopping trolleys to food and drinks’ packaging and litter from sewers were the most common reasons for impaired quality.

“The billions being invested in cleaning up our rivers are bearing fruit – the overall quality of river water has improved dramatically over the last 10 years,” commented Sir John Harman, Chairman of the EA. “As a result, otters, salmon and an abundance of fish and birds have returned to waterways, including many in urban and industrial heartlands. There is clearly some way to go, however, in bringing aesthetic quality fully into line with water quality in some areas. Over the next five years, water companies will spend around £1.5 billion to improve 4,500 unsatisfactory storm sewage overflows under the National Environment Programme.”

“These results show that the Government is serious about providing a cleaner, better quality environment for everyone to enjoy,” said Environment Minister Michael Meacher. “The billions we are investing on improving river quality is delivering success. I am pleased that local people are joining the Government’s battle to clean up rivers and care for the water environment. For example, local voluntary groups in the Thames region have worked together to remove huge amounts of litter, shopping trolleys, and other rubbish from the Kennet and Avon Canal.”

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