Sir Steve Backs Charters for Rivers After Testing Shows High Levels of Harmful Bacteria

River Action, an environmental charity has today released findings from four weeks of daily testing of the River Thames on the Henley Reach which showed high levels of harmful bacteria and Sir Steve Redgrave is backing the charity’s Charters for Rivers to end sewage pollution.

Testing was undertaken both upstream and downstream of Henley Sewage Treatment Works (STW) which both showed that levels of E-coli and intestinal enterococci spiked significantly after a rainfall event on 20 June, with levels increasing fourfold, equivalent to an official bathing water status of ‘poor’. This means the water posed a serious risk to human health during these times. The majority of the phosphate results (34 out of 40) recorded were 0.2 mg/l or above. 37 of the 40 nitrate samples measured levels of 2mg/l or above. Any reading of 0.1 mg/l or above is considered ecologically damaging for rivers.

Levels of phosphate and nitrate along the Henley Reach throughout the four weeks were consistently double the levels considered ecologically damaging for rivers, indicating that the River Thames at Henley is excessively nutrient enriched and in a very poor condition. Overall, the results show the River Thames at Henley is in poor ecological health and can also represent a health risk to river users. The testing demonstrates that the Henley Reach is severely blighted by sewage pollution.

Analysis undertaken by Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP) suggests that Henley STW appears to be breaching permitted levels of ammonia discharged straight into the river. WASP’s analysis also suggests that there have been illegal discharges from the treatment works almost every year between 2009 and 2019. In 2022, Thames Water reported to the Environment Agency that no sewage discharges had occurred from Henley STW, but WASP analysis shows that there is evidence of at least four discharges occurring that year.

Sir Steve Redgrave, Chair of the Committee of Management of Henley Royal Regatta said, “At Henley Royal Regatta, we are deeply concerned about the impact that sewage pollution is having on our beautiful river. Sewage pollution is harming the environment that we enjoy and respect so much.

“I canoe from my home town of Marlow at Longridge. There’s a water treatment plant there and sometimes you can see from the colour of the water that there has been a discharge – it’s not somewhere I would ever want to fall in. We have to improve this situation so that we can preserve wildlife and make our rivers safe for everyone who uses them. That’s why I, and Henley Royal Regatta, are backing River Action’s Charter for Rivers and throwing all our weight behind the campaign to end sewage pollution in the River Thames at Henley.”

The findings have caused outrage amongst the local population and the rowing community who are very worried that the recent departure of Thames Water CEO Sarah Bentley and news of the company’s weakened financial position will result in increases in pollution. They are urging Thames Water to take immediate action to stop breaking the law and engage responsibly with the community, undertake more regular and transparent testing of water at Henley, invest in the Henley Sewage Treatment Works and install a number of mitigations, including UV treatment. They strongly urge the Government and Thames Water not to neglect their collective responsibility for addressing the sewage pollution crisis and the freshwater emergency.

River Action and the Henley community are calling on the Government and all political parties to adopt the Charter for Rivers as a matter of urgency. The Charter – which was presented to political decision-makers at a reception in Westminster yesterday (3 July) – is supported by over 70 cross-sector organisations and was recently endorsed by Sir Steve Redgrave. It sets out the actions that need to be taken to rescue Britain’s rivers for people and nature.

James Wallace, CEO of River Action said: “The results of this citizen science prove the dire state of England’s capital river. Wildlife along the Thames is collapsing and river users are at serious risk. The Government and industry are treating our national life support system like a diseased open sewer while staring down the barrel of a freshwater emergency.

“However, it’s time to end the culture of blame and denial. Unravelling the financial mess left by rampant profiteering and deregulation must not distract us from rescuing our rivers together. Thames Water and the Government must admit culpability and invest in modernising infrastructure and enforcing the law, targeting exposed communities like Henley.

“The Charter for Rivers positions healthy rivers as a top priority in the next general election to all candidates and voters, clearly laying out urgent actions to end pollution and over abstraction. We have seen what can be done in a national health or energy crisis. Government ministers and corporate CEOs must publicly commit the finances and solutions this emergency requires, or endure the wrath of the electorate.”

Joanna Robb from the Henley Mermaids added, “We know the Thames intimately – we swim in it year round, in winter and summer and have swum its length from Castle Eaton to Marlow. But over the past five years we have been horrified by the scandal of sewage dumping into our precious river and its tributaries, caused by the water industry’s lack of investment in sewage infrastructure. We have witnessed the impacts of sewage pollution with our own eyes: sanitary products, sewage foam, sewage tide lines on swans and dead fish. We are contacted regularly by parents asking us if the river is clean enough for their children to swim in. It disgusts us that in one of the world’s richest countries in 2023, our children can’t even swim in our rivers without falling ill. In the water-stressed South-East of England, we are also facing a crisis of water security. With accelerating climate breakdown, it’s vital we have a water industry that can deliver water to our population while protecting our rivers.
“This crisis can be fixed. We can have clean, healthy rivers safe for humans and nature. We need real investment in our crumbling sewage and water infrastructure and meaningful, positive action to rescue our rivers. We need a water industry that puts people and nature at its heart. We wholeheartedly support the Charter for Rivers.”

A Thames Water spokesperson said: “Taking action to improve the health of rivers is a key focus for us and we will review the findings of this report.  We have an upgrade planned for Henley sewage treatment works which will provide a major increase in the site’s treatment capacity and is expected to complete in 2025. We’re also currently supporting the local community’s application for a designated bathing water site in Henley.

“We regard all discharges of untreated sewage as unacceptable, and it’s understandable why the public are demanding more from water companies to do better. We recently announced our plans to invest £1.6bn on our sewage treatment works and networks over the next two years and are striving every day to reduce the discharge of untreated sewage into our rivers.

“At the beginning of the year we published an online map providing close to real-time information about storm discharges from all of our 468 permitted locations and this continues to be updated with information on improvements being planned for more than 250 sites across our region.

“In addition, The Tideway Tunnel, which will be completed by 2025, at a total investment of more than £4bn, is designed to dramatically improve the water quality of the River Thames by capturing around 95% of sewage overflows.

“Stopping discharges altogether will take time and sustained investment, however each step we take on this journey is a move in the right direction.”


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