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Environment Agency reveals 10 most improved rivers

The Environment Agency has revealed the 10 rivers in England and Wales that have shrugged off their industrial past and become the most improved in quality in recent years, including one that was officially declared a sewer in the 19602. But it said that there is still more to be done to meet EU water quality targets.

It said their transformation was down to thousands of habitat improvement projects, tighter regulation of polluting industries and work with farmers, businesses and water companies to reduce pollution and improve water quality. River habitats have also benefited from reductions in the volume of water taken by water companies, farmers and industry.

“Britain’s rivers are the healthiest for over 20 years and otters, salmon and other wildlife are returning for the first time since the industrial revolution,” said Agency head of land and water Ian Barker. Barker added that there was still more to be done and plans are in place to transform a further 15.29km of rivers by 2015 with £18M to be spend this year.

The 10 most improved rivers

  1. River Wandle, London — Historically the river has suffered extreme pollution and was officially declared a sewer in the 1960s. But over the last 20 years it has become a vibrant rich habitat due to better environmental regulation, a fish stocking programme and huge local enthusiasm for the river which has resulted in a vast improvement of water quality. The Wandle is now well known as one of the best urban coarse fisheries in the country and supports a huge variety of wildlife supporting a wide variety of species including chub, barbel and eel. It has also become a very popular location for walkers.
  2. River Thames — London’s iconic river has undergone a dramatic recovery - from a biologically dead river in the 1950s to today’s thriving waterway; teeming with fish, and with returning salmon, otter and sea trout populations. Since April 2005 over 500 habitat enhancement projects have been completed and nearly 90km of river has been restored or enhanced. The river runs 294km from its source in the Cotswolds almost to the sea.
  3. River Wear, County Durham — The Wear and its more famous sibling the Tyne are now the top two rivers in the country to catch salmon – and recent fish surveys have shown that more fish are present on the Wear than ever before. Work with farmers and industry along the river to reduce polluting discharges to the water,  as well as huge investment in improving the sewerage infrastructure, has lead to a dramatic improvement in river water quality.
  4. River Stour, Worcestershire — Just a generation ago heavy pollution had taken its toll and turned it into a virtually lifeless river. The Environment Agency worked alongside Wyre Forest District Council, Severn Trent Water, the Wildlife Trust and retailers to transform the Stour into a river that is healthy  for wildlife as well as the local economy. Water quality has improved so much in the river that wildlife, such as salmon and otters, have returned. Otters have even been spotted in the centre of Kidderminster.
  5. River Darent, Kent — It was used for trade during the 1800s and was straightened, widened and in some places given concrete banks to increase its usefulness. By the late 1980s the Darent was recognised as the lowest flow river in the country, after years of over abstraction by water companies and industry. However, over the last 20 years the Agency has reduced the amount of water allowed to be taken from the Darent by 35M.l per day. It has also undertaken work to reprofile the banks of the river in the fastest flowing sections. As a result of improved flows, the Darent has seen a healthy population of flow sensitive fish species and invertebrates such as brown trout and river limpet flourish in previously vulnerable sections of the river, and the river is now classed as having Good Ecological Status. 
  6. River Dee, Wales and North West England — The River Dee (Afon Dyfrdwy) rises in Snowdonia and flows for 113km through Wales and England, forming part of the border between the two countries. The estuary has provided a habitat for significant bird populations for centuries. During the winter, more than 100,000 waders and 20,000 water fowl make it their home. However, the Dee has faced many threats. Parts of the river flow through industrialised areas, and over the centuries unregulated commercial discharges polluted the once-clean waters of its lower reaches with toxic chemicals and sewage. Strict conditions on these discharges as well as a review of how much water can be taken from the river has improved the water quality and ensured that there is always enough water for wildlife to thrive.
  7. River Nar, Norfolk — The River Nar in Norfolk is protected as is one of the few remaining fenland chalkstreams. But over hundreds of years it has been over widened, deepened and straightened for agricultural drainage – ruining wildlife habitats in the process.  But work by the Environment Agency and other partners has helped to  restore the river to its natural state, bringing huge benefits to local wildlife. The river’s complexities of riffles, pools, gravel beds and meanders, lush bank side vegetation and summer cattle-grazed traditional meadows creates a very rare and nationally important wildlife hotspot. Home to more than 78 river plants, including the beautiful southern marsh orchid, the river also supports 12 different species of dragonfly, as well as kingfisher, grey wagtail, reed warblers and willow and marsh tits.
  8. River Taff, South Wales — The rivers of South Wales once ran black with coal, and were so polluted that no life could survive – even as recently as the 1980s. But 30 years on, the coal mines have closed and work by Environment Agency Wales, local authorities and angling clubs has seen fantastic results, with the Taff now supporting many species of wildlife, including salmon, otters, sea trout and eels. The water quality in the rivers has dramatically improved thanks in part to the work by the Environment Agency to introduce tighter controls on industrial discharges to the rivers, and improvements in sewage treatment processes. In less than 30 years the Taff has recovered from a lifeless river to become a popular angling destination, and two years ago hosted the international fly fishing championships.
  9. River Stour, Dorset — Located along the river is Dorset’s oldest mill, which has been the site of much of the conservation work, involving silt removal and restoration of the weir, leat, and tailrace pool. This has created an area in which fish can seek refuge from the strong currents of the main river. The restoration of the mill has produced a dramatic boost in local wildlife. T
  10. Mersey Basin, North West — The River Mersey is the river that powered the industrial revolution – but as industry flourished the rivers of the Mersey Basin suffered. Chronic pollution from industrial discharges and raw sewage brought about a drastic decline in water quality and the wildlife of the rivers. The once thriving fisheries became ecological ‘dead zones’ and by the 1940’s all commercial fishing had ceased. By 1982 the Mersey had become the most polluted river in Europe. Over the past 25 years more than £1bn has been invested in cleaning-up the Mersey. Improved sewage treatment and industrial processes, and tight controls on discharges to rivers have ensured that the river is now cleaner than it has been in over a century – and salmon, otters, trout, chub and eels are regular sights in the Mersey once again.


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