Britain's rivers are bouncing back

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Over the past 20 years there have been dramatic improvements in both water quality and wildlife for urban rivers throughout England and Wales.

Following decades of pollution from poorly treated sewage and industrial waste, rivers in or near major urban areas are regaining their populations of mayflies and stoneflies that are typical of fast flowing and richly oxygenated waters. On average, there has been a 20% increase in the range of invertebrates found in these areas.

Using data supplied by the Environment Agency, researchers from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences carried out an independent analysis of almost 50,000 samples from thousands of rural and urban locations, and the team cites the decline of industry, tighter regulation and improved wastewater treatment as the reasons for improvement.

However, there have been some rivers in rural upland areas — such as Wales and parts of northern England — where rivers appeared to have deteriorate slightly instead, and the researchers will now investigate these trends further.

Another important finding was that drought years reversed the recovery — at least temporarily.

Dr Ian Vaughan, lead author of the study said: "These important results show how benefits to river biodiversity — the huge array of species that live in our rivers — have arisen from investment and long-term restoration intended largely for other 'river ecosystem services' such as drinking water and sanitation."

Co-author, Professor Steve Ormerod, added: "While some pollutants are still problematic, there is no doubt that this is a major success story that shows what can be achieved by effective environmental regulation. These are very large improvements not only for river ecosystems, but for the many people who live, work and play along their banks everywhere from Burnley to the Black Country or from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff."

Head of Catchment Management at the Environment Agency, David Baxter, said: "High quality environments promote wellbeing and creativity, so improvements in rivers are important for wildlife, people and the economy. It is great to see this independent analysis confirm that urban rivers are recovering, but there is still more work to do. We're working with farmers, businesses and water companies to reduce pollution and improve water quality and we have plans to transform more than 9,500 miles of rivers in England and Wales by 2015."

A paper describing the study appears in the current issues of the prestigious international journal, Global Change Biology.

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