Realising the liquid assets of our rivers

Water harnessed by mills was the first to become foul. Fiona Russell reports on a grassroots scheme to make it "green" again.

It's called Greenstreams and the ambition behind it is to see lovely rivers running with salmon, brown trout, eels and other fish. Why is this so remarkable? Because the rivers concerned were blots on the landscape.

The Colne, the Calder and the Holme once brought wealth to mill owners around Huddersfield. Exploited for all they were worth, the rivers partly died and the exploiters saw no reason to pay to bring them back to life.

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Now that is changing The giant agribusiness Syngenta, which own a riverbank site just outside Huddersfield, is one of the companies funding the new Greenstreams clean-up campaign. Other local businesses providing cash include the logistics company FMG, Britvic and Marks and Spencers.

"Huddersfield's rivers have suffered centuries of abuse," says Jeff Keenlyside, co-director of the Huddersfield-based company Environmental Alliance.

"Until recently, water quality in all the rivers was extremely poor. The Calder was the worst, but the Colne and the Holme also suffered badly."

The rivers served the mills as their first source of power and as waste-disposal systems. Water was abst racted in vast quantities by means of weirs and disgorged back into the rivers heavily polluted. There was sewage too. "As late as the early 1990s it was a real issue," says Jeff Keenlyside. "It had been treated, but not well enough. The result was oxygen depletion, a serious problem for both aquatic insects and fish. Only those species most tolerant to low oxygen could survive."

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And there was also the issue of attitude. "In the late 1980s and early 1990s local people didn't value the rivers," says Jeff. "They couldn't see them and they couldn't get to them."

Sewage treatment is now being dealt with as a result of new European legislation. Industrial pollution has fallen, partly through the efforts of the Environment Agency who monitor the water closely and prosecute where necessary, and also because many of the mills have closed down.

The priority now given to water quality can be judged by an incident in May. To some older people in the Colne Valley it looked like a return to the bad old days when they awoke on May 26 to find a thick plume of black smoke, and television pictures showing 150 fire fighters tackling a massive blaze at Grosvener Chemicals, Linthwaite. Foam being used to fight the fire was rolling down the banks and into the River Colne.

But senior officials from the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water were at the fire scene by 4am. They advised how to contain the contaminated water and arranged to move as much of it as possible through the sewers and also by tanker to the waste water treatment centre at Deighton.

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And people have now woken up to the potential of these rivers. Local groups such as the Colne Valley Trust and the River Colne Project, the Holme Valley Civic Society and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust have campaigned to increase the visibility of the rivers. Big landowners such as Kirklees Stadium Development Company and B&Q have been persuaded to improve access to the riverbanks. Access is now automatically taken into account when any planning application which affects the river banks is considered.

Many local people have set-to with a will, spending their Saturdays clearing the riverbanks of invasive weeds and rubbish, their evenings monitoring bats and their Sunday mornings putting up bird boxes and planting wild flowers.

The result? The recovery of long-moribund fisheries along the Holme and Colne, significant habitat improvements for bats throughout the river corridor and the recolonisation of the Calder's riverbanks by otters.

But public money is now in short supply, and it took an outsider to show the way with a private initiative.

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A couple of years ago, Bryan Russell, from Essex. won a day's guided fishing on the Holme at Lockwood. When he returned home he wrote to Huddersfield MP, Barry Sheerman. Bryan described his day as "almost everything I would have wished for". The water quality and health of the fisheries were not in question: "There were plenty of trout and grayling, living in the clear fast-flowing river."

In fact the fishing was better than in Bryan's backyard, the renowned River Test in Hampshire, and it was a whole lot cheaper.

The problem, however, was all around him: "The disappointment was fishing in a river that was almost literally full of rubbish." Much of it – concrete blocks, old pipes, sheets of metal and plastic – had clearly been there for years and Bryan pledged a generous sum of money towards a clean-up campaign.

The result is Greenstreams, launched by Barry Sheerman and managed by the charity Urban Mines in conjunction with Jeff Keenlyside's Environmental Alliance and other organisations.

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They will take a hard-headed look at the rivers' potential value to the community, says Jeff.

" We have significant populations of grayling and brown trout developing which are native fish. Angling will have to be managed carefully, but elsewhere in the country it's a significant source of income.

"We'd also like to see populations return to a level where they can sustain commercial fisheries. The River Calder was once well known as a salmon river and freshwater fish was a staple food of the local population."

Tough times call for creative thinking, but Jeff can see the potential. "It's common sense. If we have quality environments on our doorstep we should use them. The rivers are our assets."

CW 17/7/10