Action call for UK's 'failing rivers'

Posted: 22 September 2009

Just five of the 6,000 rivers in England and Wales remain in pristine condition, according to new figures published today - all in remote areas of Northumberland and Wales.

The Environment Agency assessment lists 26 per cent of rivers as 'Good' status, the required European standard. This means 74 per cent of rivers are failing - including 117 rivers (2 per cent) which are classified as 'Bad' making them among the worst in Europe. Amongst these are the Stour estuary and a stretch of the river Trent.

Dead fish in River Trent
Dead fish in River Trent
Thousands of fish died in the river Trent earlier this year due to polluted run-off which had travelled downstream. Rivers like the Severn, the Trent, the Tyne, the Dee in Wales and the Stour estuary have improved in the last decade following investments - mainly by water companies - but remain a long way short of being in good ecological health. Photograph: Angling Trust
The Our Rivers campaign - backed by a coalition of the RSPB, WWF UK, the Association of Rivers Trusts and the Angling Trust - has reacted to the report by calling for tougher action to protect waterways and ensure they remain clean and healthy for the benefit of wildlife.

"There is no doubt that the millions of pounds invested by the water industry over the past two decades has brought real improvements to our rivers and coasts," said RSPB director of conservation Mark Avery.

"But these alarming figures really show just how far we have to go to tackle the problems faced by our rivers. There are just five rivers in pristine condition left and they are all in some of the least densely populated corners of the country.

"Elsewhere we are having a devastating impact on our waterways. Pollution from agriculture, over abstraction and poor town planning are all factors threatening what is an extremely important habitat for wildlife. Otters, water voles, kingfishers and more than 30 species of fish all rely on our rivers and we have a responsibility to keep them healthy and clean.

"This report should serve as a wake up call for the Government to do more to protect rivers. We will be examining the Environment Agency's proposals for action being released today and challenging Government to ensure the final plans have a far reaching effect on the problems affecting our rivers, lakes and coasts."

Slow progress

Tom Le Quesne, WWF freshwater policy advisor, said: "Unless we take action now to stop the decline in the health of our rivers then we are storing up a raft of problems for the future. We are heavily reliant on this precious resource and our legislation and actions must deliver a positive improvement to its state."

The release of these figures coincides with the Environment Agency setting out its plan for how it will care for rivers in England and Wales over the next decade - and achieve the new European Water Framework Directive which requires the UK to bring all of its rivers up to 'Good' status or above by 2015. While the plans list hundreds of actions, many of which reflect long-standing commitments to improve the environment, disappointingly only 5 per cent more rivers will be at 'Good' status by 2015. Environment minister Hilary Benn now has three months to decide whether this is really ambitious enough.

The report on the environmental status of rivers is the result of a huge amount of work by Environment Agency staff. It is the first time factors such as fish and plant life have been taken into account giving the fullest ever indication of the ecological state of UK waterways.

The Our Rivers campaign is the largest river action campaign ever seen in the UK and was launched in April this year. Its website at www.ourrivers.org.uk features and interactive map of the UK's rivers and the environmental problems they face.

The five 'High' status rivers are Ridlees Burn (from source to Coquet), Barrow Burn Catchment (tributary of Coquet), River Till (from Source to Linhope Burn) and Linhope Burn (from Source to Till), all in Northumberland and the Caletwr in Conwy, Wales.

In a separate Press Release the UK Environment Agency said the assessmenmt showed that the UK rivers were in a better shape than at any time in the last 100 years. It gave as examples:

  • 50 years ago, no salmon were seen on the River Tyne, but already this year more than 10,000 have been recorded migrating up river

  • Otters have this year been recorded in both Greater Manchester and the lower Thames for the first time in 40 years and after also moving into Sussex this year, can now be found in every English county

  • The River Hamble, in Hampshire, has a new fish pass which enables sea trout, lamprey and eels to swim upstream for the first time in hundreds of years.

  • The River Mersey, once the most polluted river in Europe, is the cleanest it has been for a century. Salmon have now returned to the river.