The state of the River Thames

Image above: Children exploring the foreshore during Tidefest at Strand on the Green

There’s life yet in Old Father Thames

Guest blog by Martin Salter

Tidefest 2022 was held, as usual, at Strand on the Green and other locations along the tidal Thames in September. Now in its ninth year this annual event is a celebration of the Thames and plays its part in helping to reconnect Londoners with their river.

Every year we get comments from passers-by amazed at the fish that they see caught from the river or at the fact that people would risk their health by paddling or rowing in its waters. This is hardly surprising given that sewage pollution is rarely out of the national news these days.

With Thames Water being the only water company so far to publish real time data of sewage discharges it easy to see why Londoners would think that the Thames down here has returned to the ‘lifeless sewer’ Victorian times. In fact this is far from the case.

Image above: Thames Water interactive map screenshot at 4.40pm on Monday 16 January 2023 – thameswater.co.uk/edm-map

Let me be absolutely clear that the record of the water industry since its flawed privatisation in 1991 is little short of appalling. The infrastructure is in a poor condition and is no longer fit for purpose.

In the last two years, the combined storm overflows (CSOs)  have discharged raw or partially treated sewage into Britain’s rivers on 760,000 separate occasions, lasting for a total period in excess of 5.7 million hours.

Only 14% of our waterbodies have achieved the Good Ecological Status required under Water Framework Directive and the Government is currently busy rolling back its own Environment Act targets and watering down the very EU protections that have driven improvements in water quality.

READ ALSO: Waterways and wildlife under threat as key protections face possible repeal

Image above: Dead fish illustrating River Ray pollution on the Upper Thames near Swindon  

Closer to home we have seen the horrific pollution of the Thames tributaries, most notably the River Ray near Swindon last August and the on-going scandal over discharges entering the once crystal clear River Windrush in Oxfordshire.

READ ALSO: Action demanded over River Ray pollution

However, despite the odds Old Father Thames continues to support an amazing array of fish and other wildlife and there are some good news stories amongst the gloom.

Every year anglers are catching a few sea trout from both the main river and its tributaries which have made it up through the Port of London. The increased presence of feeding seals shows there are fish in the river well below the tidal limit at Teddington and the river dipping and netting that we do each year at Tidefest produce an impressive species haul including semi-migratory fish such as bass, flounder and mullet.

Images above: The annual Tidefest netting and river dipping at Kew Bridge shows a good array of species living in the Thames.

The river in London is improving and will get better when the new, £4bn, 25km long and 7.2m wide, Thames Tideway Tunnel (or Super Sewer) opens in 2025. The tunnel is the third of a three-part intervention plan known as the London Tideway Improvements and will capture around 95 per cent of sewage overflows.

The other two interventions are the upgrade of major sewage treatment works at Beckton, Crossness, Long Reach, Mogden and Riverside and the construction of the Lee Tunnel to which the Thames Tideway Tunnel will connect.

The Lee Tunnel is already in operation carrying sewage from Abbey Mills to Beckton for treatment and some remarkable evidence of its benefits has already come to light. A recent netting survey just downstream of the old Abbey Mills Works, next to the Olympic Park, found a huge bass together with bream, roach, dace, perch, carp, feral goldfish, flounder, thin lipped grey mullet and common goby living in what was once considered the biggest and nastiest CSO on the whole Tideway.

Image above: This big bass came from the Abbey Mills sewage overflow. Thankfully now closed following the opening of the Lee Tunnel

Further upstream at Mogden the current £110 million upgrade is intended to make sure that the site can treat its full flow to treatment under all conditions, with greater resilience and headroom for population growth. That means storm tanks will be used less often and there will be fewer occasions when they need to discharge to the river.

Our Tidefest festival grew out of the ‘Thames Tunnel Now’ campaign that I helped coordinate some 12 years ago to persuade politicians that serious investment was needed if the Tidal Thames was to remain a important wildlife corridor and recreational resource.

This was backed by groups such the London Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Thames 21, River Thames Society and my own organisation, the Angling Trust. It has been satisfying to see the progress that has been made already on the Tunnel and to have had the opportunity to go down beneath the river and witness this amazing piece of engineering for ourselves.

Images above: Martin visiting the site of the Thames Tideway Tunnel

Those of us involved in campaigning for cleaner rivers have long recognised that the country’s ‘creaking and leaking’ waste water infrastructure was a prime cause of the problems that now feature in the news headlines.

The water regulator OFWAT bears a huge responsibility for failing to drive investment in the industry and both the water companies and the Environment Agency have serious questions to answer over performance. However, at least here in London we have some reasons to be hopeful that our fabulous river still has a future.

READ ALSO: OFWAT 20 years of regulatory failure

Martin Salter has lived (and fished) nearly all his life in the Thames Valley. He served as the MP for Reading West from 1997 to his retirement in 2010 and currently works as Head of Policy for the Angling Trust – the national representative body for all forms of recreational fishing. He is Chairman of Thames Tidefest.

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See also: Tidefest

See also: Interactive map shows live sewage discharges in River Thames

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