A history of our river

The Industrial Revolution and the River Aire

The River Aire was subject to gross pollution along most of its length from the mid 1800s until the 1970s.  Direct discharges from a range of industries combined with sewer overflows and discharges from sewage works to produce a river to polluted for most fish life.  With no fish much of the associated wildlife was lost and little recreational activity took place there. Even upstream of where Bradford Beck joined the river in Shipley, the water quality of much of the river tended to be poor.

A new lease of life for the Aire

Things started to improve when The Yorkshire Water Authority was formed in 1974. The Water Act 1973 encouraged a more holistic view of the river and poorly performing small sewage treatment works were closed.  Instead the effluent directed to the larger works where large investment took place. Any industries still discharging direct to river were ‘encouraged’ to connect to sewer or treat to a very high standard.  Now only a handful of significant direct industrial discharges along the whole length of the river.

Current improvements

In recent times, the Freshwater Fisheries Directive ensured that the major sewage treatment works were improved. Key sites included Esholt (Bradford) and Knostrop (Leeds). The river now has fish populations along its full length.  With these we have seen the return of otters and other wildlife.

Another piece of European legislation, the Water Framework Directive, is now leading the way in improving the ecology of the river and its tributaries.  Through this the river is set to improve to a standard which could not have previously been considered possible. The Aire Rivers Trust intends to play its part in the process of improvement.  We want to ensure that the public recognises the improvements which are taking place and are able to enjoy their improved river.

One of our Trustees, Kevin Sunderland, has a keen industry in the changing fish populations of our river.  In 2012 he he published an excellent article on the  History of the fish populations of the River Aire.  It is well worth a read as both an angler and a naturalist.  An edited version of this report appeared in The Naturalist  No 138 (2013).