London Waterkeeper wants to see a swimmable Thames. The mental and physical health of thousands would benefit. We need live water quality updates and designated swim zones from the Cotswolds to Putney Bridge. There are times the Thames fails bathing water standards and others when it meets them, but no one knows when they are. People use the river in ignorance, putting their health at risk.
A Thames Fit To Swim would be transcendent allowing more people to use it and not fear getting ill – whether that is to swim, row, kayak, standup paddleboard, or an ankle-deep paddle. It would see fish and other wildlife flourish and be a boon to local economies.
Other cities around Europe already have swimmable rivers. Munich’s River Isar is now clean enough to swim and play in. Copenhagen’s city beaches and harbour pools have been around for 20 years. They have changed the way people experience its waters and are now the most popular open spaces in the city.
At the heart of this transformation is access to information – so we can make an informed decision about using the river. We have a right to know when sewers overflow into the River Thames. Seattle tells people when its sewers can’t cope, as does Auckland. London is lagging behind.
Less than four years since we started putting pressure on Thames Water to publish real-time sewer spill alerts they have agreed to do it by the end of 2022. Thank you to everyone that demanded action and pushed for greater accountability! Thank you to our lawyers Leigh Day too.
We need the Environment Agency to embrace this vision for the Thames as part of its statutory duty to promote the use of inland waters for recreational purposes.
The aim is to have the most appropriate sections of the Thames become Designated Bathing Waters. Germany and France have rivers with this status. There is just one in the UK. We need live sewer spill alerts first of course, so people’s health isn’t put at risk.
Thames Water’s Chief Executive told the Environmental Audit Committee they will have the data online and in real-time by the end of the year and we have had it in writing from the company. They say “we have committed to providing real-time notifications of discharges at all our 468 EDM sites by the end of next year.” We will give them this time, but the clock is ticking. If they have not met their deadline we will start legal action. We will also make sure that the information is published in a way that complies with the Environmental Information Regulations. This map shows Seattle’s live sewer overflow alerts, at the very least it’s what we want for London. The newly passed Environment Act contains a requirement for water companies to publish information within an hour of a discharge. Echoing the EIRs it says the information must “be in a form which allows the public readily to understand it, and be published in a way which makes it readily accessible to the public.” This is fundamental. Once the information is online the power dynamic changes. We will know for the first time how well the infrastructure in and around London is coping. No longer will it be hidden from public view. This will drive investment. We will make sure that we harness the power of real-time data.