Thames Fish Kill Tragedy as Problems Continue with London’s Sewage System

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 thousands of fish died

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 thousands of fish died.
The Environment Agency reports that yesterday’s storm caused the death of thousands of adult
fish and young fry 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 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 be as full of life
as nature intended.”

*Market research commissioned jointly by a stakeholder group published in December 2003 showed
that in relation to the environment, nationally 87% of bill payers believe it is important to
maintain current services; and over 70% believe it is important to improve services. The stakeholder
group comprised officials from Defra, Welsh Assembly Government, Ofwat, WaterVoice, the
Environment Agency, English Nature, the Drinking Water Inspectorate, Water UK and the Wildlife
and Countryside Link.