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River Ramblings

Mermaid Laura writes a monthly column in the Henley Standard, this is May's piece:

Lets talk about rivers, there are over 1500 rivers in the UK, over 200,000 km of waterways.  Not one person in this country lives far from these beautiful blue spaces, they are our neighbours, we should take care of them.


Most of you will know me as a Henley Mermaid, Henley Community Hub trustee or head of Henley Music School - But I’m now full-time fundraising & marketing lead at WildFish Conservation, I’m still running Hub and HMS in my own time.  WildFish is the UK’s only independent charity protecting wild fish and their waters.

Photo from Henley Bridge up towards Temple Island.


We all have the right to a freshwater environment that is clean, healthy and full of life.  However, I think we all know by now, that currently, that just isn’t the case.


In my new column I can tell you all about the struggles our waterways face, how it has come to this, and what we can all do to reverse the decline.


This week I thought we should start with the all time favourite subject - Sewage pollution!  This has rightly become an election issue, thanks to campaigners, and the press - it is vital we keep it that way. However, it is also important to know that it is certainly not the only pollutant, however devastating.


How has it come to this?  Let's focus on the Thames, as that is our local river; Thames Water (TW) was privatised in 1989, having been run into the ground by the government at the time, bought for pittance by private investors, Macquarie.  During the 11 years of Macquarie's ownership ending in 2017, their debts went from £4.4 billion to £10.5 billion.  All to pay dividends, while not maintaining, or improving the infrastructure.  You may ask how it has got this bad. Well, population increase, housing pressures, out of date sewage treatment works (STW) and crumbling pipes are all part of the problem. 


Thames Water, the largest water company in the country, serving 1 in 4 of us, ¼ of the population, has failed on every level.  Judging their success not by environmental targets, but by profit alone.  Water companies are not complicated to run, but have been made complicated in order to produce huge profits.  Water is a shared resource, the one thing every living organism needs to live, and should be publicly owned.  However, here is where it gets ridiculous, the regulators OFWAT - financial regulators and Environment Agency (EA) - Environmental regulator have been defunded, poorly run and stripped of their powers, so the water companies, owned by foreign investors are free to run away with the profits, and strip our blue spaces of all biodiversity. 


So why are they releasing sewage? There are a few different types of STW’s, all working to a permit system.  The EA issue each STW with a permit that allows them to release raw effluent into our rivers depending on the volume of rain, and water ingress (ground water level, rising through cracked pipes, and run-off into combined pipes).  However, as we now all know there have been many “dark spills” - illegal dumpings, and these are permit breaches.  So now, as we know the EA doesn't prosecute, why?  We recently found out that is because OFWAT told them not to. 


TW will tell you that they are implementing a series of STW upgrades, but on closer inspection, and I heard it from senior management, they will not stop the spills, just reduce them - if you are anything like me, you’ll be wondering why bother - half a job done!


Believe me, the more you know, the worse it gets!  Some STW have a maceration system, so all the solids coming into the works, including plastic applicators, cotton buds, wipes etc are crushed up into micro plastics, processed, then released back into  the river, or spread on fields to then be washed as run-off into our waterways!  No inland STW’s have the capability to clean bacteria, pharmaceuticals, recreational drugs etc. as none of them have carbon cleaning systems.  These are obviously high carbon use, and take a long time to process the fluid, but they do mean that any of these harmful chemicals, pathogens etc. are removed before the “cleaned” water is put back into the rivers and seas. 

Photo of the mouth of St Patrick's Stream, Shiplake, parts of which are dead due to sewage pollution.


You may think, what is the point?  How can we force change, no one is taking any notice.  Well, it is better to do something than nothing at all. 


Firstly, talk about it, read the articles, gain knowledge & educate yourself.  Secondly, support the NGO’s, charities and community groups campaigning for our blue spaces, they have the knowledge, drive and ability to challenge. 


Consider the products you use in your bathrooms, kitchens, gardens, utility rooms.  Look for fish friendly products, not harmful to the environment, or better still make your own.  Have you ever seen bubbles in the Thames?  If you go to Hambleden Lock, where there is an outflow pipe, you can actually smell washing powder.  Everything including weed killer, pet dewormer, anti-flea drops, are all nuclear bombs to our ecosystem, all ending up in our waterways, killing the bugs, river flies and insects fish and other inhabitants eat to live. 


Don’t flush anything other than loo paper down your loos, and only flush if you really need to (you know what I mean). 


It is vital we all take responsibility, in place of the government who are softening all environmental targets, the water companies who are polluting with impunity and the regulators who have no teeth. 


As a swimmer in the Thames, myself, along with my swimming friends have seen a huge decline in the water quality.  One question I am often asked is; “has it got worse, or is it just because it is now reported”.  It has got worse, sewage was dumped for 1.8 million hours in 2022 - or 301,000 individual incidents (that is raw sewage releases, can be any length of time) but in 2023 this sky rocketed to 3.6 million hours and 464,000 incidents - 105% rise in 12 months.


Take back the power folks & we, as campaigners, community groups, charities and people of Henley need to continue our fight and give our blue spaces a voice. Once we have stopped the spills, cleaned up the chemicals our waterways will reclaim their health, and once again be the beautiful babbling veins of our country.

Laura Reineke 31st May 2024

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