Thames Water need to tell us when its sewers pollute our rivers

The discharge from Hogsmill Sewage Treatment Works , Kingston. Sewage overflow waste clings to the grill.

Access to clean water is a human right. We have a right to know when our rivers are polluted by Thames Water’s sewage works and overflow drains. Without this information the health of river users is put at risk and we are kept in the dark about the damage to our environment.

London Waterkeeper wants to know how often these 5 sewage works pollute our rivers – Hogsmill, Esher, Slough, Chesham, Maple Lodge and Beddington. In addition river users need to be told when sewers overflow into the Thames.

At present only historical data is available when what we need is real-time alerts. Finding out about previous overflows is a lengthy process that doesn’t keep pace with modern mobile technology.

For example we submitted an Environmental Information Regulations request to Thames Water on the 19th October 2015. Ideally the company is meant to provide the information within 20 working days. More difficult questions can take longer, in this case more than 6 months. On the 17th August last year another request was made to discover how many sewers overflow into the Thames between Richmond Lock and Sunbury Lock and how often they spill. The final information came on the 12th October. This is useful but the information for understanding what has happened over previous months and years but it won’t tell people when the river is clean enough for recreation on the day they want to do it. Swimmers, paddle boarders, rowers and kayakers are all at risk.

London Waterkeeper wants Thames Water to create a web page that displays sewage overflow information when spillls happen, in real-time. We also need an alert system that tells us when there’s sewage in the water. Copenhagen and New York State have shown London how this can be done and are far ahead.

Without this vital information river users can’t make informed decisions putting their health at risk.



Riversides campaign – we’re poisoning the rivers in our parks with sewage

Rivers in London’s parks are being polluted with human sewage.

The system designed to stop the problem can’t cope and is failing to protect our rivers.

A Freedom of Information request by London Waterkeeper has revealed that in 6 months there has been a 700% increase in the number of river-polluting drains on the Environment Agency’s waiting list. In November there were 18, there are now 154 drains damaging rivers in and around London.

Part of the Wealdstone Brook in Woodcock Park, Brent

Part of the Wealdstone Brook in Woodcock Park, Brent

Thames Water has been set a target of dealing with 200 dirty drains by 2020. That list was full right at the start of the five year plan in 2015. This means that countless drains will be harming rivers and putting people’s health at risk for years to come.

We rely on the authorities charged with the protection of our rivers to prevent this. They need to recognise that the system is over-capacity and under-funded.

A problem that should have ended in Victorian times is plaguing London in the 21st Century.

Thousands of homes have connected washing machines, showers and toilets to pipes that lead to a local river. Only rain is meant to go down a drainpipe, wastewater needs to be treated at sewage works. Instead we have turned many rivers into sewers.

The pollution of rivers with sewage is happening on a massive scale. Thames Water says there are more than 63,000 properties that are breaking the law and the proportion is increasing.

We’re putting our health at risk too. London Waterkeeper has taken water samples in public parks and found worrying levels of e-coli bacteria. This shows sewage is in rivers that anyone could come into contact with.

The Moselle River in Lordship Recreation Ground. It’s polluted by sewage from homes in Muswell Hill, Wood Green and Hornsey

The truth is the efforts being made to protect our rivers are inadequate. We need the Environment Agency and water regulator Ofwat to fully recognise the scale of the contamination. Thames Water must be allowed to dedicate more resources to finding homes that have polluting pipes.


What can be done to protect our rivers?

Thames Water’s plan for 2020 – 2025 hasn’t been settled yet. London Waterkeeper will be campaigning for it to fully recognise the scale of sewage pollution from people’s homes and dedicate more resources to it. For this we need the Environment Agency to prioritise the problem.

Giving Thames Water a goal of 200 drains isn’t good enough when it’s a fraction of the real number. We need the Environment Agency to be candid and reflect the true situation. Only then will people start to realise the extent of the problem and check if their home is polluting a local river.

While polluting drains are reported and investigated the investment doesn’t match the size of the problem. The drains don’t remain sewage-free for long enough. New sources of pollution occur faster than old ones can be found and stopped. The national misconnections information campaign has a very low profile, not reaching enough people.

This drain is polluting the Wealdstone Brook again just over a year since it was declared clean

Our rivers are caught in a vicious circle which sees them perpetually contaminated by effluent. There is a lack of effort to stop the problem reoccurring. The Wealdstone Brook was declared clean in March 2015. But 14 months later it is polluted again, stinking and coated with sewage fungus. Sewage levels in Tottenham’s Moselle River have risen again after an increase in the number of properties with misconnections.

London Waterkeeper will continue to highlight the number of rivers in parks that are being poisoned by sewage, exposing the harm it causes and calling for action.


Our rivers are too precious to ignore – so let’s stop our roads polluting them

If it remains unchanged the draft London Sustainable Drainage Action Plan will fail our rivers and weaken efforts to heal them. As it stands its scope is too narrow.

A drain from the North Circular ring road into the Pymmes Brook in Enfield

The Plan is the work of the Greater London Authority. Transport for London is part of the GLA and operates most of our major roads. Many of these pollute rivers every time it rains.

Our vehicles create a damaging mix of dirt which is washed down road drains in wet weather – a blend of oil, copper, zinc, and microplastics from tyres. This strips oxygen from the water, killing or driving out fish, polluting our most precious resource. With millions of vehicles adding to this cocktail every day it is an industrial amount of pollution. We need the GLA and Transport for London to take responsibility for the pollution that comes off their roads.

Boyton Road

Here the road run-off is directed into a specially constructed wetland that removes pollution before it reaches the river. Boyton Road, Haringey.

Nature is great at removing road pollution so the stormwater that reaches a river is clean. The technical word is bio-retention. It means sending the dirty water through shallow dips and trenches where it slows down, dropping the polluting particles. Here bacteria consume the vehicle oils and heavy metals like copper are held in one place. In time this build-up can be removed for treatment.

Sadly the London Sustainable Drainage Action Plan has no action plan for dealing with road run-off. The only significant action the Plan sets itself is to cut the amount of rainwater that enters sewers in central London. This is too narrow a focus. We need an approach that benefits all of London’s water environment.

Central London has a combined sewer system where rain and wastewater go into the same pipe and flow to Beckton or Crossness treatment works. Stopping these sewers from overflowing is to be welcomed. However most of London has separate drainage pipes – one for rain and another for sewage. The rain ends up in the nearest river. When it is clean that isn’t a problem. Unfortunately the water that is washed off roads is dirty.

The London Sustainable Drainage Action Plan needs to recognise that Transport for London’s road network is a significant source of river pollution and must set actions to stop it. The GLA is now considering the comments that members of the public and organisations have made. Let’s hope they change the Plan to include  –

  • Committing to stop Transport for London’s road network polluting rivers by 2030
  • Identifying the most polluting road outfalls along the Transport for London network
  • Developing a rolling programme of work that redirects road run-off through natural drainage systems (Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS))
  • Working with London’s Councils to cut the pollution caused by their roads
  • Persuading operators of car parks that pollute rivers to install natural drainage systems


Theo Thomas


How being more Danish will help save the River Thames

Copenhagen rightly prides itself on leading the global revolution in urban swimming. There are more than 10 official spots where you can swim in harbour waters fed by the Baltic Sea. This northern European city has maximised public access to the environment seeing it as a common good.

Copenhagen invested in infrastructure that cut sewage pollution by 95%. In addition it constantly monitors water quality at bathing areas and displays the information online. With the water clean enough, it’s been able to build harbour swimming pools, new beaches, changing rooms and showers. Your arrival at a beach or Harbour Bath is met by a TV screen that displays the current state of the water. If it is green you know the water is clean, red and there is sewage bacteria present. I went to Copenhagen this autumn to find out how the city had made its waters swimmable. I wandered down to Svanemølle Beach in complete confidence that the water was fit to swim in.


Live water quality updates at Svanemølle Beach, Copenhagen

This could be the situation in London, along the non-tidal Thames. Between Hampton Court and Richmond we could have a series of Swim Zones; urban beaches with real-time water quality monitoring, places to change and shower. If this section of the Thames achieved Designated Bathing Water status it
would be the first river in the UK to have it.

Sadly this year we moved further away from a swimmable non-tidal Thames. Public access was reduced after it was decided it was no longer safe to hold the annual Human Race swim from Hampton Court to Kingston. In 2012 a third of swimmers taking part in the event became ill. A Public Health England report found that participants experience 4 times the rate of illness from swimming in the Thames than other rivers they use. This isn’t surprising as we treat the Thames as a drain, part of the sewage system. Anything more than moderate rainfall and raw sewage flows into the river.

That’s why London Waterkeeper has started A Thames Fit To Swim In. Large numbers of people would benefit from a swimmable Thames, but at present that can’t happen. The infrastructure isn’t in place nor the water quality information. When we go to a beach we can find out how clean it is, bathing warnings are in place if it is dirty.

Svanemølle Beach

For A Thames Fit To Swim we need to know when sewage is flowing into the Thames and when it isn’t; we need outflows from sewage works to be treated with ultra-violet light to kill bacteria and viruses; pollution from storm drains must be cut.

A Copenhagen style transformation can take place along the non-tidal Thames, all we need is a different mindset, one that places people and nature at its centre. With that we can create a river where nature flourishes and thousands have a Thames to play in.

Theo Thomas, London Waterkeeper


London Waterkeeper

We have a right to clean water and healthy rivers. Sadly river pollution is a daily reality in London –

  • Oil, heavy metals and dirt are washed off roads
  • Dirty industrial estates allow poisons to ooze into our rivers
  • Outdated sewage works overflow when it rains

All of this means 100% of London’s rivers fail the Water Framework Directive which says they were meant to be healthy and have reached Good status by 2015. This won’t happen.

London Waterkeeper is a new independent charity set up to challenge polluters and defend rivers in the capital. It is a member of a global federation called Waterkeeper Alliance. This is a network of more than 250 Waterkeepers who patrol and protect rivers, bays, lakes, and streams from pollution.

Waterkeeper Alliance is 15 years old – here’s a film to mark the anniversary which features London Waterkeeper – video

London Waterkeeper

Waterkeeper Alliance member logo