WHILE Londoners have heard that the Thames is cleaner, many are still hesitant to go and join the fish for a swim, and quite rightly so, as just last night tens of thousands of fish died.  The Environment Agency reports that yesterday’s storm caused the death of tens of thousands of fish across all ages and species when more than 600,000 tonnes of untreated sewage and urban run-off (storm sewage) overflowed into the River Thames.


Every year, approximately 18 million gallons of untreated sewage combined with urban run-off overflows into the tidal Thames. The capacity of the Victorian built system can no longer cope with rainfall of 2 mm/hr over a few hours – normal London weather conditions. That means 50-60 times a year, everything flushed down a toilet above the inadequate capacity of these old sewers spills into the Thames through big overflow outlets along the river’s embankments – 36 of these causing gross concern. 


London, billed as a ‘world class city’, still uses its river as a sewer, with papers, faecal matter, condoms, tampons and other unsightly items floating past the Houses of Parliament on a weekly basis. This storm sewage harms fish, like the struggling salmon, by depleting the oxygen available to them in the water down to as low as 10% in the summer.  When tens thousands of adult fish and young fry are dead and floating at the river’s surface, as they are today at Kew, Brentford and Isleworth, there is a clear cause for environmental and health concern and need for Ofwat, the water systems economic regulator, to implement a solution to storm discharges.


Additionally, in our view these storm sewer discharges are a violation of the legally binding Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.  Weekly discharges of up to 10,000 tonnes of storm sewage 50-60 times a year is not what the Directive would call “an acceptable number of overflows”, nor is it “an unusual situation”.  These are discharges that legally require secondary treatment at the very least. 


An underground sewage storage tunnel has been found to be the best and most cost-beneficial solution available to upgrade London’s unique and complex Victorian system according to the three-year Thames Water funded study conducted by the Thames Tideway Strategic Study group.  To ‘do nothing’ is not an option as the environmental, health and safety, and legal obligations require action.  Londoners support spending the required money to improve their water system*.


On Friday, August 5th the Salmon & Trout Association will be looking to see if Ofwat includes the cost of the tunnel in Thames Water’s draft business plan for the next 5 years. If the tunnel is not included, it suggests pressure from key government ministers are behind a significant delay to an urgent problem.  While ‘further studies’ may be the official reason, we suspect a relatively small additional £6 increase to the water bill before a general election might be considered politically damaging.  However, a recent Environment Agency study revealed that Thames Region residents would be prepared to pay £12 million to see a sustainable run of salmon on their river.  So, we think some politicians have got it wrong.


Paul Knight, Executive Director of the Salmon & Trout Association, says, “allowing large amounts of raw sewage and urban run-off to overflow into the Thames cannot be allowed to continue.  Delays, weakly rationalised by a call for further studies on a stretch of a metropolitan river that has already, conceivably, had a greater range and scope of studies than any other, are unnecessary.  The studies will simply tweak the agreed plan.  Let’s get on with it and allow the Thames to enter the sea as clean as nature intended.”