The Thames has become a ‘national shame’ – so we tested the water to see how bad it really is

The Telegraph did its own test of the water and the results were damning – Clara Molden

It’s strange, really, that one of our most beloved, lyrical books about English rivers should have been written in the dying embers of the Victorian era. When Kenneth Grahame wrote about a rat and a mole who spent their days ‘just messing around in boats’ – inspired by the walks he took with his son along the River Thames and its tributaries in Berkshire – the waters that flowed along his home and beyond that flowed into London were a cesspool often blamed for the diseases that swept through the city, characterizing that era as a time of filth and disease.

Microbiologist Arthur Hassall perhaps put it best when he wrote of life on the banks of the Thames in 1850: ‘A portion of the inhabitants of the metropolis are compelled to consume, in one form or another, a portion of their own excrement , and moreover to pay for the privilege.” You think Mr Hassall would be disappointed to know that very little has changed 174 years later.

About 30 miles downstream from where Grahame wrote Wind in the willowsOn Saturday, four boats will weave their way through those same waters, battling to reach the finish line at Chiswick Bridge first. The 18 men and 18 women cutting through the water obviously have their eyes on that coveted Boat Race trophy. But they will also do their utmost not to fall for it. Why? Because the water is filled with sewage.

It has been a very bad week for Thames Water. The beleaguered company is facing a standoff with its regulator and is in a race to secure funding after its investors pulled out of a planned £500 million lifeline, all amid claims that water quality in London and the southeast is worse than ever thanks to sewerage. overflows from the exhausts. That this coincided with one of the highlights of the British sporting calendar, which happens to take place largely at the mansion of Thames Water, has only made the injury worse.

Sean Bowden, coach of the Oxford University Boat Club, declared water quality in British rivers “a national disgrace” as E.coli levels detected in the Thames reached alarming levels. The Environment Agency (EA) revealed that there were 3.6 million hours of wastewater discharges into UK rivers last year, a record high.

In the Thames, research found an average of 2,869 colony-forming E.coli units per 100ml of water (almost three times the recommended limit) in samples taken around Hammersmith Bridge, where the boat race will take place on Saturday. The Telegraph did its own test on Thursday and found levels of E.coli 20 times higher than the threshold for bathing water of “satisfactory” quality, and almost eight times higher than for intestinal enterococci, indicating a strong presence of human wastewater in the river at Putney at that time. time.

“It’s a concern,” Bowden said Telegraph Sports this week. ‘And I am very happy that the newspapers are calling the water companies to account. I’m right with them. It’s a national shame, isn’t it?”

He added: “Why would you want to put your kids in there?”

Well, completely, or indeed your mate. The traditional coxswain dipping ceremony at the end of the race is unlikely to take place. Organizers have issued new guidelines highlighting the “risks of entering the water”, with rowers advised to “cover open wounds”, wash their hands regularly and visit the cleaning station in the finish area.

It is worth noting that the health of the Thames does not depend solely on sewage spills. Fertilizers, pesticides and feces runoff from the land – ‘diffuse agricultural pollution’ as it is known – are also to blame. According to local supply company South East Water, pesticide concentrations in the Lower Thames area recently breached drinking water standards (DWS), with high levels of the herbicides flufenacet and propyzamide found in the water. These readings were likely exacerbated by heavy rainfall.

However, it is the sewage that is currently drawing the ire of the country. EA data shows that the number of hours of sewage spills from Thames Water increased by more than 160 per cent between 2022 and 2023, with 196,414 hours of spills recorded last year.

Figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats in November 2023 show that Thames Water has spilled the equivalent of 29,000 Olympic swimming pools since 2020. Companies such as Thames Water say that overflows in extreme conditions (such as during periods of exceptionally heavy rainfall) are essential for controlling water flow. waste water through our outdated sewers. The argument is: wouldn’t you rather have sewage released into our waterways in a controlled manner than have it flow into your home? Campaigners say that in reality they use overflow discharges much more often.

Thames Water was fined £35.7 million over pollution incidents between 2017 and 2023. In 2023 it was fined £3.3 million for killing more than 1,400 fish by discharging untreated sewage into rivers.

In Britain, water companies have an embarrassing record when it comes to tackling leaks, but Thames Water has come under particular scrutiny in the past month. It faced backlash over its commitment (or lack thereof) to tackling sewage problems, and refused to join an industry-wide effort to reduce pollution in our rivers. The government announced that six water companies would spend £180 million over the course of a year to prevent more than 8,000 leaks; Thames Water will not be among the participants.

An examination of Thames Water’s own sewage map is alarming. As we headed into this Easter weekend it was a sea of ​​red exclamation marks, each warning you of a storm spill that is currently discharging, while the amber exclamation marks tell you where a spill has recently occurred. For example, click on Thame, a market town east of Oxford. “Our monitor indicated that this storm overflow is currently draining. This means that there may be sewage in this part of the watercourse.” What does it feed on? Lashlake Stream. Any wild swimmers may want to avoid that particular spot over the holiday weekend.

Or how about Greenwich, in the epicenter of the capital? As of 2:52 p.m. Friday, the storm exhaust has been discharging there for 44 hours and 22 minutes. It’s slightly better news for the Boat Race: the nearest spill on the route is downstream at Wandsworth, and that was a quick five-hour job. While it is worth noting, there was also a fairly large spill upstream at Mogden this week. That lasted 15 hours, well into the early hours of Friday morning. I hope the current brought all the rubbish to Essex on Saturday afternoon.

Mogden is a major player in the great Thames Water debacle. West London’s sewage treatment plant collapsed in 2021, flooding nearby homes and gardens with stinking water. “The river rose incredibly quickly. It flooded the bottom of our garden and rushed into the kitchen. It smelled strongly of sewage,” said local resident Anna King.

It is one of the largest plants in Britain and treats the waste water of more than 2 million people. The year before, during a period of heavy rainfall, approximately 2 billion liters of raw sewage was released in just 48 hours. The company now plans to use the plant as a so-called recycling program, which would result in 100 million liters of water being taken from the river and 100 million liters of treated sewage being thrown back every day.

A spokesperson for Thames Water said: “Taking action to improve the health of rivers is a key focus for us and we want to lead the way with our transparent approach to data. We remain the only company to provide live alerts for all untreated discharges and this ‘near real-time’ data is available to customers as a map on our website.”

They added that they had experienced “above average sustained rainfall across London and the Thames Valley, with groundwater levels exceptionally high for the time of year”.

“We are working hard to make these discharges redundant and have published plans to upgrade more than 250 of our sites.”

Abigail Buchanan of The Telegraph bravely volunteered to collect samples from the ThamesAbigail Buchanan of The Telegraph bravely volunteered to collect samples from the Thames

The Telegraph’s Abigail Buchanan bravely volunteered to collect samples from the Thames – Clara Molden

The Tideway Tunnel, a 7.5 meter wide tunnel running from Acton to Stratford and nearing completion, aims to take some of the pressure off. When open, the aim is to prevent more than 30 of the 50 outlets from entering the river. “London has forgotten the Thames,” said Tideway Tunnel CEO Andy Mitchell The Telegraph in 2018. “Personally, I think it is unacceptable that our river in the capital is treated like an open sewer and that must change.”

Called the Super Sewer, it will become a kind of second Thames – a new system to support the Victorian pipes designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette. In the 1860s, those pipes were intended to serve a city of two million inhabitants. Nine million now live in the capital. That is more than four times the amount of wastewater. When it rains and the sewerage overflows, the excess water is flushed into the river via a network of overflows.

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race teams may want to pray for good weather on Saturday morning, if for no other reason than the winning coxswain doesn’t appreciate a celebratory dip in a pool of excess sewage.

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