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Rivers are the circulatory system our natural environment depends on. They are integral to our daily lives, water supply, health and economy, but our river system is under constant attack from raw sewage pollution and there is a clear risk that this could increase exponentially as the impacts of population expansion, climate change and Brexit become locked in. 

Steps to address this are now under threat. The Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill 2019–21 now appears on the verge of becoming yet another casualty of the pandemic. Unless Covid restrictions to debates in Westminster Hall and Friday sittings can be lifted safely in time, the Private Members Bill risks losing its Second Reading before the Parliamentary session ends and the Bill could fall. Rescue could come through opportunities to legislate in Government time, potentially by amendment to the Environment Bill during Lords stages; however this Bill too has now been delayed by Covid.

As we battle through the current challenges, let’s all refuse to let this one go. Even if it takes longer, the support and the impetus must continue.  We must not abandon our rivers and countryside. 

Philip Dunne MP’s Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill 2019–21 has outlined action that is needed to enable our towns and cities to continue to function and grow within their natural landscape and infrastructure without damaging it through sewage pollution.  His Bill sets out a direction of travel that must be supported with energy and commitment by national and local government, water companies, commerce and industry, the not-for-profit sector and by the general public.

As Chief Executive of environmental charity Thames21 since 2005, I can confirm the widespread presence of raw sewage in the River Thames and the network of rivers which feeds it, and the devastation that results. For a quarter of a century Thames21 has been connecting with rivers at grassroots level, delivering practical solutions to the environmental challenges that rivers face.  Thousands of members of the public give their time as volunteers and citizen scientists, working with us along these river systems. They participate in river clean-ups and support our conservation, river restoration and environmental monitoring projects.

Our volunteers are eyewitnesses to the ravages of sewage pollution. They have reported seeing living fish crowding together at the river surface of the Thames, gasping and struggling to breathe within water that has been stripped of its oxygen by sewage; they have raised the alarm when dead fish have floated in their thousands along rivers such as the Lea in East London.

The stink of sewage from brooks and streams is common in some areas, particularly as a result of misconnections and cross connections in the sewage and surface rainwater systems. You can see fronds of ‘sewage fungus’ – bacteria fed by sewage in the stream and grown into a hairy grey carpet or ribbons stretching metres around rocks and across water plants. In London, we see it burgeoning along water-courses across the capital; from small streams such as the Wealdstone Brook in north London or Moselle Brook in East London to larger rivers such as the River Lea in East London and the River Brent in West London.  The communities we work with talk about the vile odours from rivers and streams flowing behind their houses, alongside roads and through the parks where children play – a result of sewage contamination. 

Paddlers, kayakers, boaters are all victims of sewage pollution. In September 2019 we were looking forward to the UK’s first mass paddle-sports event on the River Thames through Central London and the spectacle of hundreds of boaters connecting with the river in friendly competition. Regatta London was dramatically cancelled for health and safety reasons.  After heavy rain, London’s sewer system had become overloaded and discharged raw sewage extensively into the river through the combined sewer overflows. This was not an isolated event: sewage now contaminates the tidal Thames almost every time it rains. 

Along the Thames foreshore we see increasing quantities of dirty wet-wipes and used sanitary products.  These have been flushed down toilets and then washed out into the river with sewage through overflow pipes.  Our Thames River Watch citizen science programme monitors the health of the river, supported by Tideway, the company building the Thames Tideway Tunnel.  In the most recent surveys of wet wipe mounds in the river, Thames River Watch citizen scientists counted and removed 23,000 wet wipes from the foreshore.  

Bathymetric surveys carried out by the Port of London Authority have shown that the wet wipe mounds are growing in height. In just under five years, the biggest of these mounds at Barnes grew nearly 1.4m in height; half of this growth in the nine months between September 2018 and May 2019. This growth has occurred despite frequent large clean-ups at the site over the past two years. 

For the Thames, there is news of improvement. The Thames Tideway Tunnel project, due for completion in 2023, will divert the most polluting Combined Sewage Overflows away from the river to a new ‘Super Sewer’.  Additional solutions such as Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems and wetland creation would increase the scheme’s long term sustainability as well as providing multiple environmental and social benefits.

But this won’t help the rest of the country. This is a national problem. The UK has over 45 million toilets flushing more than 2 billion litres of waste water down the drains every day.  The number of toilets connecting into our already over-stretched systems will increase steadily with population growth and as a result our rivers will become increasingly filthy and damaged. 

Climate change causes more extreme weather and will exacerbate the impact of sewage on rivers.  During periods of drought, as water levels in rivers drop, pollution becomes more concentrated and more devastating to wildlife, particularly in our smaller rivers.  Climate change also brings more frequent, heavier downpours of rain which can overwhelm the combined systems, resulting in more sewage overflows.  

Leaving the European Union could be highly significant for our rivers.  The UK has been part of a Europe-wide commitment, backed up by legislation with punitive powers, to improve our rivers across political boundaries.  Legislation is now enshrined in UK law; however Brexit brings the risk that our previous commitment to the steady improvement of water quality in rivers could slip down the agenda as UK budgets face other pressures.  The alternative and better outcome is for the UK to provide an exemplar of good practice and inspire the global community with a meaningful and accountable commitment to protect the environment we so depend on.

Raw sewage discharges into our rivers must stop. This is where Phillip Dunne’s Bill comes in.  If it becomes law it will legislate for separated surface rainwater and sewage systems to be progressively installed, particularly in areas of population growth, so that the only water pouring into our rivers is clean rainwater. It calls for Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems to enable more rainfall to soak back into the ground, instead of into the combined sewage systems causing them to overflow. It calls for full monitoring and reporting on activity at combined sewage overflows and in rivers so that we have a clearer picture of the scale of the problem, its impact on the river and how best to mitigate such damage through nature-based solutions.

All of us must surely acknowledge that the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill 2019–21 is supremely important and despite the challenges of Covid, we must ensure that legislation is delivered without any unnecessary delay.

Deborah Leach is the Chief Executive of Thames21. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Bit Cloud]