Thames Water boss brands performance ‘unacceptable’ during river quality inquiry

Millions of tonnes of raw sewage enter the Thames each year.

Thames Tideway Tunnel
Thames Tideway Tunnel

Thames Waters’ chief executive has branded her own company’s performance as “unacceptable” while taking questions from the river water quality inquiry.

The Environmental Committee (EAC) on Wednesday quizzed bosses from five of the largest water and sewerage companies in England on the issue of river contamination.

It comes following the committee’s inquiry into water quality in rivers, which heard reports of water companies discharging raw sewage into rivers in England more than 400,000 times last year.

The Thames has been badly impacted by wastewater, with millions of tonnes of raw sewage entering the river each year.

Thames Tideway Tunnel
Engineers at the back of a boring machine excavating a section of the Thames Tideway Tunnel in London.

Under questioning from EAC chairman Philip Dunne MP, Thames Water chief executive Sarah Bentley admitted that her company’s performance is “unacceptable”.

“Thames (Water’s) performance is unacceptable, our customers find it unacceptable to contact us.

“Our ageing infrastructure, whether that’s on the water side with leakage, or on the sewage network in terms of the capacity we are treating, needs addressing.”

Ms Bentley said that Thames Water has a “broad range” of performance metrics that “need to change”.

“Since I joined 12 months ago I have been accelerating the money that we have got during this regulatory period”, she said.

“When I started I went out, I listened to our customers, I listened to environmental groups and members of this House, and of this committee, and it is clear that we have a broad range of performance metrics that we need to change”.

Ms Bentley also revealed that the new Thames Tideway Tunnel would not be able to eliminate the problem of rainwater spills into the Thames.

The 16-mile long tunnel is projected to cost £4.2bn and is set to be completed by 2025.

“Currently, when we get inundated with rain, up to 39 million tonnes of rainwater, which then gets contaminated with sewage, is discharged into the tidal Thames, which is clearly unacceptable”, she said.

“The Thames Tideway tunnel will eliminate the vast majority of that.

“Clearly, with extreme weather events, that are increasing, we need to look at that before it comes into operation in the next two and a half years.

“But when the original analysis was done 15 years ago, we would have needed a tunnel twice as big.”

Thames bank clean-up
Members of Surfers Against Sewage and Thames 21 clean the banks of the river Thames, near Battersea Bridge in south west London, as part of the Surfers Against Sewage 20th anniversary Beach Clean Tour, which has visited 20 major UK beaches and waterside locations (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

She told the committee that, at its widest, the Thames Tideway tunnel is as wide as three double-decker buses.

“It would need to be twice as big to reduce it down to zero spills”, she said.

“It’s designed to take it from 39 million tonnes down to two and a half million tonnes.”

She said her company was spending £1.2bn over the next five years on improving its overall network to treat sewage and rain.

Ms Bentley said she understood why Thames Water’s customers find spills into the water unacceptable and said that her company’s position is also that they are unacceptable.

“I can understand why people are genuinely upset and concerned about the quality of the rivers and the situation with sewage discharge into those rivers,” she said.

“A number of my colleagues have suggested making sure that we transparently share information about when those spills are occurring.

“More importantly, what I have heard in the year that I have been running Thames is that our customers just find spills unacceptable, and we find them unacceptable and I’m really committed to finding out how we can eliminate storm discharges so that people can swim confidently in the river.”

Previously the EAC heard that just 14% of English rivers are currently rated an ecological status of ‘Good’, and that not one river in the country is rated ‘Good’ on its chemical status.

In a statement the EAC said that one of the main sources for this is sewage discharge from the water industry.

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