River rescue plan is watered down to save money: Government applies pressure for cuts in 12m pounds project. Nicholas Schoon reports

A pounds 12m rescue plan for the disappearing river Darent in Kent is in jeopardy because the Government is putting pressure on the National Rivers Authority to scale it down.

The once-beautiful 20-mile chalk stream in London's Green Belt is the most celebrated of Britain's 'low flow' rivers, which suffer from over-abstraction by water companies. It rises near Sevenoaks and used to flow into the Thames estuary at Dartford. But the flow has fallen drastically this century and is now insufficient to support brown trout. Long stretches have been left waterless in summer.

Lord Crickhowell, the rivers authority chairman, walked along the dry riverbed and vowed to restore the flow. After long and difficult negotiations with Thames Water, whose boreholes are draining the stream, a comprehensive pounds 12m rescue scheme was drawn up with the costs to be shared between the authority and the water company. It was to be the authority's most expensive river restoration project.

But on Friday the authority's board agreed to a two-stage rescue with the option of drastically cutting the costs. This has angered people living in the villages along the river who have long campaigned for its rejuvenation.

'We're very worried,' Huw Alban Davies, chairman of Darent River Preservation Society, said. 'The rescue scheme was conceived as a whole and now it's being picked to bits.' The authority will seek the Department of the Environment's permission to install six artificial springs - pumps that raise water from boreholes in the chalk below the riverbed and pump it into the stream. 'I fear these are only cosmetic measures,' Mr Davies said.

If these springs fail to restore a healthy flow, the authority will ask for permission to proceed with the most expensive component - a 10-mile underground pipeline to carry water from deep chalkpits at Swanscombe to the Darent. This would cost pounds 5m.

Thames Water's side of the bargain is to cut its abstraction by 60 per cent at six boreholes in the winter. This should help the water table to recover fully. The water company will have to alter its distribution system to obtain drinking water from elsewhere.

The Department of the Environment doubts whether the pounds 12m, the total cost of these elements, can be justified. Although the NRA intended to use money it raises by charging for water abstraction licences, it still has to obtain Whitehall permission.

A spokeswoman for the authority said: 'We'll be applying to the Government for permission for the entire project, but we'll be monitoring the flow rates as it proceeds to get the best economic and environmental return for the money.'

Civil servants visited the Darent earlier this year. It had been raining heavily so there was a reasonable flow. A kingfisher was seen, and the men from the ministry greeted that as a sign of the river's good health.

(Map omitted)

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