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Thames Water commits to river health improvement package

Tuesday 15th March 2022 13:30

Four people sit with a picnic next to a river which has two kayakers paddling on it

  • Thames Water commits to a 50% reduction in the total annual duration of spills across London and the Thames Valley by 2030, and within that an 80% reduction in sensitive catchments 
  • Achieves key milestone in delivery of its commitment to provide live sewage discharge notifications, at all of its 468 sites by the end of 2022 – the first water company to make such a commitment 
  • 50% increase to funding for working with catchment partnerships and driving collaboration
  • Thames Water is making good progress on delivering its £1.25 billion programme of maintaining and improving its operational sites between 2020-2025 – an average of £250 million a year
As the first water company CEO to speak publicly on river health in recent times, Sarah Bentley continues to ‘speak up, open up and clean up’ – by providing an update on the company’s approach and announcing a package of measures to improve river quality and reduce sewage discharges - in a speech today (15 March 2022) at the annual Rivers Trust’s Spring Conference.


Thames Water commits to reducing the total duration of sewage discharges in its region by 50% by 2030, rising to 80% in sensitive catchments


Sarah Bentley said: “In October 2020 we changed our position and said clearly that discharges of untreated sewage are unacceptable, even when they are permitted.   Since then, working with others, we have a number of projects and initiatives under way which will help us reach a position where they are no longer necessary.  That will take time, effort, and sustained investment but ultimately, we expect to be judged on our performance, which means setting and meeting targets.”


The business is targeting a reduction in the duration of spills, rather than any other metric, as it recognises all untreated discharges have the potential to cause harm to the environment and disruption to people’s enjoyment of a river, so it is focused on stopping them as quickly and effectively as possible. 


Thames Water is already spending £1.25billion on maintaining and improving its operational sites between 2020 - 2025 – (an average of £250 million a year) – including contributing to the health of 745km of rivers across London and the Thames Valley.  Plans are well progressed and work on site will start shortly on major projects at sites including Witney, Mogden and Chesham.


Sarah also said that work on the Thames Tideway Tunnel is nearing completion. It is the biggest single project undertaken by the UK water industry, and by far the largest to tackle combined sewer overflows (CSOs) which will divert millions of tonnes of sewage away from the Thames to improve river health. 


Thames Water reaches key milestone in its commitment to live sewage notifications at all of its 468 sites by the end of 2022


Sarah said: “Transparency is really important to us.  That is why last year we committed to providing live notifications, within one hour of discharges starting and stopping, at all of our 468 permitted locations by the end of this year.  I am pleased to announce that our open data pilot has been successful, as part of our mission to open up, and we will now move to the next phase of delivery.”  


Thames Water was the first water company to make such a commitment for inland waters and has successfully piloted an open data platform in an industry-leading trial of real-time alerts of sewage discharges from six of its sites around Oxford in 2022. 


Thames Water commits £5 million over 5 years, in partnership with the Rivers Trust, for partnership projects and capacity building 


The speech also highlighted the importance of working in partnership with communities and campaigners to improve water quality. 


Sarah said: “We need the support, challenge, ideas and energy of catchment partnerships if we are to achieve the healthy rivers we all want.  I am making a commitment today that, in partnership with the Rivers Trust, we will make an additional £5 million available to the catchment partnerships in the Thames Water area over the next five years, for partnership projects and capacity building.  This is in addition to the £9 million we have already committed to our three Smarter Water Catchments*.”


Thames Water continues to be part of the application for bathing water status at Port Meadow in Oxford and is hoping, with its partners, for a positive decision from Government soon. To date, it has provided funding to the Oxford Rivers Project to coordinate the application and assisted with the Project’s water quality sampling programme at the company’s laboratories. 


Mark Lloyd, CEO, The Rivers Trust said: “Creating cleaner, healthier rivers fit for people and wildlife is fundamental to our future resilience.  The Rivers Trust welcomes the urgent prioritisation that water companies are placing on addressing river pollution.  It’s also really important that Thames Water have recognised the need to address these complex challenges in a collaborative manner. Working with the Rivers Trust to launch this £5 million fund, is just one example of the kind of collaborative work that will identify community needs and help restore and improve river health.  We will ensure that this work brings real benefits to local communities and that we build transparent accountability between partners.”
*In 2021, Thames Water launched Smarter Water Catchment Initiatives to protect and enhance the River Evenlode, River Crane and River Chess. The £9 million project aims to bring together organisations, community groups and residents from across the region to help secure a brighter future for these rivers. The plans set out a 10-year commitment to boost biodiversity and help address water quality issues, as well as providing wider benefits for local communities through better access, improved amenities, schools programmes, volunteering opportunities and health and wellbeing benefits.

Read Sarah Bentley's speech to the Rivers Trust Annual Conference in full.