Urban rivers having renaissance

The quality of urban rivers in England and Wales is catching up with that of rural rivers, according to a new study by the Environment Agency. Overall, quality is continuing to improve, with 95% found to have good or fair chemical quality during 2001.


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This latest set of river quality results are even higher than 2000’s 94% total, when the Environment Agency declared that the 40,000km of English and Welsh rivers were probably cleaner than they had been since before the industrial revolution (see related story). Last year 94% were considered to be of good or fair quality, but only 85% had achieved the same level in 1990.

At the other end of the scale there has also been a slight improvement. A third of one percent of rivers were found to be of ‘bad’ quality in 2001, equating to 133km of rivers, compared to 0.4% in 2000 and 2.4% in 1990.

Urban rivers have traditionally been more polluted than their rural counterparts. Until the 1970s and 80s many rivers in cities and industrial areas were heavily polluted, but changes to the nature of industry and tightening of regulations have resulted in an increase in quality. The Environment Agency’s latest survey has found that nearly 87% of urban rivers are of good or fair quality. In 2000 this figure was 80%, and ten years earlier, only 57%.

According to the Agency, one recent winner from environmental improvements is Salford Quays in Manchester, part of the city’s industrial heritage. Work began in 1990 to improve the poor quality of the water in Quay, and by August this year it was suitable to be used as the swimming leg of the Commonwealth Games triathlon event.

The Quay’s renovation has consisted of a £4 million scheme to pump 30 tonnes of oxygen a day into a 3km stretch of the canal – described as fish tank technology. Fish stocks have also been added to support the process, and now the water in the Quays has been awarded blue flag status for fisheries – better than many British beaches, according to Salford City Council.

Environment Agency Chairman Sir John Harman welcomed the news, stating that placing the environment at the heart of regeneration in cities will provide economic as well as social benefits from the boost provided by quality spaces. “With about 80% of people in the UK living in urban areas it is essential to create thriving, accessible rivers which provide quality space – with developments turning back to face the river,” he said.

However, more needs to be done, he says. For those rivers that are not as clean as they could be, the Agency is trying to convince planners and developers to use drainage systems that collect and treat urban runoff rather than allowing it to go straight into rivers. As well as this, water companies have planned to improve 4,500 sewer overflows between 2000 and 2005. The two projects should make a huge difference to the quality of urban rivers, hopes Harman.

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