THE River Darwen is coming back to life. After years of being a murky brown mess, devoid of any kind of wildlife, birds, bugs and fish are returning to the water and its shores.

But environmentalists are warning that no-one can afford to be complacent if the river is to continue to thrive. VAL COWAN reports... TEN years ago parts of the River Darwen stank. To many people it was a lost cause, containing sewage but not a lot else. Fish didn't stand a chance.

But not everyone gave up. The Mersey Basin Campaign was set up in 1985 with the aim of making all rivers in the Mersey Basin area, including the Darwen, capable of supporting fish by the year 2010.

And with the help of local groups like the Darwen River Valley Initiative, the campaign is on course to reach that target.

Ron Freethy, the campaign's communications manager, said: "The improvement in the Darwen, particularly in the last five years, has been quite dramatic.

"Ten years ago parts of the Darwen stank. Improvements in sewage treatment and to water overflows mean that the smell has gone."

And although the water might still look brown - due to the peat in the river's catchment - it is now clean enough to support a growing variety of wildlife.

A decade ago there were a few trout in the river, but none at Darwen or at Witton Park.

Now there are fish there, and there is hope that the area could become a trout fishery in five or 10 years.

Kingfishers and heron feed on the fish, and grey wagtail live on the stoneflies, mayflies and dragonflies which have returned to the river.

Ron said: "Pollution causes low oxygen levels and these things are just not tolerant of low oxygen levels at all. Very few could survive if the oxygen levels were low." But he warned that the improvements did highlight just how much can be achieved with a little effort - and how far there is to go before the Darwen becomes the perfect habitat for wildlife and an attraction for the people of East Lancashire and beyond.

Organisations like North West Water and the Environment Agency are doing their bit.

North West Water has been told to include improvements to the sewerage system in its plans for the next five years.

Around Blackburn, work is likely to focus on stopping pollution getting into the River Darwen and nearby Hole Brook.

Industry is also being forced to clean up its act.

The Environment Agency's policy of making the polluter pay for the costs of a clean-up means most companies are taking more care than ever not to pollute our watercourses.

But environmentalists believe that above all it is down to the public to take responsibility for the river and protect its future.

Dave Hortin, project co-ordinator for the Darwen River Valley Initiative, is hoping a new project the RVI has joined, called Water - the Cycle of Life, will encourage the public to take more care.

Under the scheme the RVI has been given European Union funding to pay for leaflets and events to raise awareness of the problems caused by litter in rivers, household impact on water quality and the need to conserve water supplies.

Mr Hortin regularly examines water quality in the River Darwen and carries out clean-ups of litter-ridden stretches, and often finds debris dumped by fly-tippers and litter louts - shopping trolleys, old tyres and plastic bags.

It nestles alongside sanitary waste - condoms, tampons and cotton buds which have been flushed down toilets and not caught by the filters in the sewerage system.

Then there is the pollution which is not always visible to the naked eye - the chemicals produced by households which seep into watercourses and slowly kill the wildlife which lives there.

Mr Hortin said: "The most common litter item found on the region's beaches are cotton buds. This is because people dispose of these down the toilet instead of using the bin."

Careless disposal of oil can have devastating consequences.

Paul Parkinson, environment protection team leader with the Environment Agency, said: "If you pour a gallon of oil into a lake, it will cover an area the size of a football pitch with an oily film.

"That seals the water off from the air so whatever is underneath can't get any oxygen."

Detergent - even biodegradable varieties - can cause major problems for wildlife too.

Wastewater from washing machines and dishwashers can and does kill fish if the machines are incorrectly installed and discharge wastewater into a rainwater drain.

Keeping rivers like the Darwen clean has benefits for everyone.

Ron Freethy said: "We should be looking at the river and asking how we can develop tourism around it, and use the river as an attraction.

"Also, people have properties overlooking the river. A clean river and a neat and tidy environment means that property values go up."

Dave Hortin added: "It really is a question of awareness. A lot of people won't do it with any intention of damaging anything but they are not aware of the implications of their actions."


Don't flush sanitary towels, tampons, condoms etc down the toilet - bag them and bin them instead.

Ensure your washing machine is correctly plumbed in.

Dispose of oil correctly.

Wash your car at a car wash where the soapy water will be disposed of correctly.

Don't dump rubbish - take it to a household waste disposal centre instead.


The Environment Agency hotline for reporting all kinds of pollution incidents: 0800 807060

Oil Bank hotline - to find the location of your nearest oil bank: 0800 663366

Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.