LEVELS of pollution in a river could be reduced after the Environment Agency announced plans to issue revised permits covering discharges from watercress farms.

The permits will be issued to cut the levels of phosphate pollution being pumped into the River Itchen.

Firms like watercress producer Vitacress will reroute its pumps from its farms after agreeing to the plans.

The new measures may not be in place until 2016.

Excess phosphate in the river acts as a fertiliser, encouraging unnaturally vigorous growth of algaes that smother the riverbed and strangle aquatic weeds. It alters the ecosystems in the river and affects plants, aquatic insects and fish.

The decision has been welcomed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT) and the Salmon and Trout Association (S&TA). Both organisations have worked together to contact river owners and supporters to get key players in this issue to take action.

Debbie Tann, HIWWT’s chief executive, said: “We are hugely encouraged that the EA has at last taken a grip on the phosphate issue.

“We are particularly pleased that the two largest watercress companies, Vitacress Salads and the Watercress Company, are taking this issue seriously, with Vitacress announcing that it will not only operate within the new standards but will reengineer its cress beds to dramatically reduce the amount of phosphates discharged into the river by January 2016. We also understand that the Watercress Company has agreed a similar target, aiming to comply later in 2016.

“Although we feel that these timescales could be shorter, we look forward to working with the companies and the EA to ensure that all the improvements on the Itchen are made as soon as possible”

Paul Knight, S&TA’s chief executive, added: “We are delighted that phosphates are at last being controlled in the river, although it is extremely frustrating that this has taken so long, with the Itchen all the while being allowed to deteriorate in water quality.”

Steve Rothwell, production and technical director at Vitacress, said the firm set up a PhD study with the University of Southampton to analyse the river, which found there was too much phosphate pollution in it.

He said: “We have spent a lot of time in negotiations with the Environment Agency in reducing phosphate fertilisers leaving farms and getting into rivers.

“The only way Vitacress can achieve that is to take the farms off line and put a system in where we reroute the water. It’s a necessary change the industry is stepping up to.”

He said the work would take time as Vitacress would have to draw up plans and submit them to the Environment Agency and Southampton City Council.