River users and interested stakeholders packed the Council Chamber in the Town Hall on Wednesday evening to understand the impact of sewage pollution and to get the community to come together to make a plan of action.
The evening was organised by River Action, Henley Mermaids and Windrush Against Sewage Pollution and guests included swimmers, rowers, paddleboarders, kayakers and representatives from many organisations including Leander Club, Phyllis Court Club, Rotary Club, Rivertime Boat Trust, Regatta for Disabled and many others. Sir Steve Redgrave and Henley Royal Regatta CEO, Daniel Grist were unable to attend due to a Board meeting but had made it known to the organisers that they wanted to help and understood the severity of the problem.
Thames Water has been fined twice in 6 years. £20m in 2017 for illegal discharges between May 2013 and June 2014 from the Henley Sewage Treatment Works (STW) into the Fawley Court Stream and in 2021 they were found guilty of a big fish kill in 2016 with 1.5 Olympic swimming pool size amounts of untreated sewage being discharged into the river over 2 days. Water companies are allowed to spill sewage into open water following heavy rainfall to prevent the system becoming overloaded and backing up into homes.
James Wallace, CEO of River Action opened the meeting by saying, “England has the worse river health in Europe. The River Thames is an unsafe place and people are getting ill. We need to act quickly and we need Thames Water to take accountability and take action. On the 9 May 2023 Henley STW discharged sewage directly into the river for 12 hours. We don’t know if this was a legal or illegal discharge. It’s not just human health or water security, its wildlife too. It has a ripple affect up and down the stream. River Action was formed 2 years ago and is gathering data and working with communities to get healthy rivers.”
A video was then shown of a large ‘poo’ slick on the Henley Reach. After the loud disgusts in the room the Henley Mermaids then spoke. Laura Reineke said, “We’ve seen evidence of tampons, nappies, stoma bags etc and we’re just sick of it. We’re outraged that this sewage is being dumped into the river.” Jo added, “There has been decades of under investment by Thames Water.”
Aggie Hodges from Thames 21 then outlined the plan to achieve Bathing Water Status for Henley and that testing of river water had been started by a group of volunteers at 6 sites along the river from Henley to Reading. She said, “The results so far have been inconclusive as there is only 4 weeks of data. We will publish the results at 10 weeks but they are not looking good. We’re excited to be working with River Action and sharing the data.”
Peter Hammond from Windrush Against Sewage Pollution then showed some stats of discharges which included 105 breeches of Ammonia levels in February 2023.
James ended the formal presentations by saying, “We will support you and not desert you. We will be writing to Thames Water to ask them to invest in their sewage infrastructure and ask politicians to back the national Charter for Rivers calling for healthy rivers by 2030. We need you to share stories, tell us when you experience things and take photos. We’re organising a stand at Henley Regatta to get the message out there.”
The floor was then opened for questions with many calling for Thames Water to invest in their sewage infrastructure and or be returned to public ownership. Two mothers whose children were sick after swimming on 21 May in Remenham. They called for signage to show when the water is OK to swim in and more education about river pollution in young people.
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