Restoring a River and its Wildlife: People Power
Posted in Movements by Kate Archdeacon on September 14th, 2011
From “Yorkshire’s revived river Aire is a lesson in people power” by Peter Lazenby:
News that Britain’s once foully polluted rivers are achieving levels of cleanliness and wildlife occupation not seen since the industrial revolution is to be welcomed. But credit for this cannot be claimed only by the government’s environment agency and anti-pollution legislation. Behind many of the improvements lies people power – the mobilisation of individuals and organisations to force polluters to clean up their act. In the 1980s and 90s, that is exactly what happened in my part of the world, industrial west Yorkshire.
The river Aire starts out as a healthy river in the Yorkshire dales, springing from beneath a limestone cliff known as Malham Cove, where falcons nest. By the time it wound its way through Bradford and Leeds, some 50 miles downstream, it had received the industrial waste of textile, chemical and engineering industries, plus the domestic waste of more than a million people. The pollutants killed off the river’s oxygen supply.
In the 1980s, a group was formed called Eye on the Aire. Its volunteers brought together more than 30 organisations with an interest in the river. They included community groups representing people living near its banks, conservation and environmental organisations, sporting groups such as rowing clubs, local councils and companies such as Tetley’s brewery, which had a riverside location. For a decade the group campaigned to press Yorkshire Water to install an extra level of filtration at its sewage works – tertiary treatment. The system involves the filtering of already treated sewage effluent through pebbles and increasingly fine layers of sand. It took a decade to win the campaign, which included the harnessing of government influence and action by the environment department.
Yorkshire Water installed the tertiary treatment at a cost of millions of pounds. The effluent it produced was often as clean as the fresh river water into which it passed. The effect was near miraculous.In the late 1990s, more than a decade ahead of much of the rest of Britain, otters, heron and other wildlife began to return to the river Aire in the heart of industrial Leeds. Salmon appeared in the lower reaches, blocked only by weirs and other obstacles. Water passes will eventually allow them to reach spawning grounds in the Yorkshire dales where they have not been seen in more than two centuries.
There was an economic spin-off. The Aire in Leeds had been part of a comprehensive canal and river transport network in the days before rail. Its city riverside was littered with semi-derelict warehouses and factories not used in decades. No one wanted to invest in and develop buildings adjacent to a stinking open sewer. The restoration of the river to life changed all that. Today the Leeds waterfront thrives with homes, restaurants, bars and markets. The Aire hosts an annual water festival.
The driving force behind the return to life of the river was Eye on the Aire, an organisation made up of ordinary people with determination and a belief in their cause. We should remember their example in the face of future struggles.
Read the full article by Peter Lazenby for the Guardian