Vital information about river pollution and water quality is not being recorded on computer because of a pounds 10m contractual dispute in which the National Rivers Authority is suing a British software company.
The lost data could mean that during extreme weather conditions - such as droughts or floods - the NRA is unable to determine the quality and quantity of the water available. As a result, it might issue incorrect facts to firms using rivers as water sources or outfalls.
The lawsuit, newly filed by the NRA against Logica, could mean that a computer system to process such information, which should have been partly installed by last summer, is not in place before the end of this year.
The NRA's writ claims thatLogica "is unwilling to deliver the contractually agreed system at the contractually agreed price within a reasonable timescale." It is suing to recover pounds 4m paid to the company so far, plus unspecified damages.
Logica has responded by contesting the NRA's grounds for action, saying, "it is Logica's contention that the NRA is terminating the contract for its own convenience". The company added that it had "consistently acted in good faith and with the best intentions".
Logica was awarded the contract to build a to build a computer system called WAMS - Water Archive Monitoring System - in July 1994. This would give the NRA the ability to record nationwide data about levels, flow and water quality in rivers and groundwater, based on readings taken every 15 minutes at sites around the country. It would have put a single, integrated national system in place of 640 incompatible computer systems, some 20 years old, inherited when the NRA was set up in 1989.
The first part of the system was due to begin operating last summer, but had not been installed by November. Staff at the NRA expressed severe doubts about the progress of the contract as early as September.
The Independent has seen an anonymous letter, apparently from a member of the authority's computing staff, which was sent to the trade paper Computer Weekly. It said: "We in the field have little faith in our national computing unit, who have provided little or nothing to aid the business to deliver a professional approach to water management."
In November the NRA and Logica began talks to try to reschedule the project. At the time, a company representative said: "Both sides will admit to experiencing some difficulties."
Staff at the computing division declined to discuss the matter yesterday, but an NRA spokesman said: "We have reached the stage where we don't believe Logica will be able to deliver the system that we want in time."
The legal battle means that 18 months of work may now go to waste, and the merger in April of the NRA with other regulatory bodies - Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution and the Waste Regulatory Authorities - could seriously delay any replacement further.
Karl Schneider, news editor of Computer Weekly, said yesterday: "Our understanding is that this is a classic case where a project fails because the project specification changes and neither side can agree whether the change means that it is the same system as was required in the first place."