Waterway has suffered incidents of pollution in the past

A mysterious white foam appeared on the surface of the River Irwell this morning to the bemusement of passers-by, many of whom took to social media to share the bizarre sight.

The foam was seen in Salford from Broughton Bridge all the way into the city centre. It has also been spotted in the River Roch, which may be the source of the substance. The Environment Agency Northwest are currently investigating but have not yet found the cause of the foam.

The recovery of the River Irwell has been one of the biggest environmental recovery stories of the last 25 years

The River Irwell was also covered in white foam in separate incidents back in February and May of this year, while photographs of a similar white foam were taken in 2016 by naturalist Dr Luke Blazejewski.

19 11 5 Foam Irwell Credit Luke Blazejewski
An earlier incident of foam on the Irwell in 2016 Luke Blazejewski

The Irwell had been known as a polluted river for a long time. Back in 1950 a report from the British Field Society said:  "There are no fish … no insects, no weeds, no life of any kind except sewage fungus, nothing but chemicals and any dirt which cannot be put to profitable use."

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The recovery of the river to thriving waterway had been descried as “nothing short of miraculous” but in 2017 volunteers from the Mersey Basin Rivers Trust spotted white foam emerging from a source close to the Rossendale Water Treatment Works. Earlier in the year almost all water life along a 25-mile stretch was killed after pesticide was released into the water.

Mike Duddy, CEO of the Mersey Basin Rivers Trust, said: "The recovery of the River Irwell has been one of the biggest environmental recovery stories of the last 25 years — the river polluted so badly by the Industrial Revolution now holds the country's best stocks of brown trout and other fish which support kingfishers, otters and dippers.”

There were also claims in 2017 that water from the Irwell was poisoning dogs, but the Environment Agency denied this was the case.

The foam has been the catalyst for plenty of jokes on Twitter, with references to foam parties and soap suds, but the serious point is that management of waterways is a complex business with responsibility being shared between central government departments, local government, the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Forestry Commission, the Canal and River Trust Highways England, Network Rail and United Utilities to name but a few. Any imbalance of this delicate system can cause disaster for life in the river basin.

The recovery of the waterways has been credited to Greater Manchester leading the way in fostering environmental awareness, so pollution incidents such as these are a blow to the regions’s green credentials. 

Confidentials has contacted the Environment Agency Northwest for a comment. A spokesperson said: “The Environment Agency is aware of foam pollution in the River Roch and downstream in the River Irwell in Manchester. We are currently on site investigating and are working with partners to resolve the incident. We are grateful for the public response in reporting the incident to our 24hour Incident Hotline on 0800 80 70 60.”

Read: Climate crisis: should Manchester feel guilty about its industrial heritage?

main image: @poppypscupcakes