The travails of Thames Water: leaks, dumps and lack of funds

Over the last few months, it appears that not one week has gone by without more shocking revelations about the performance of Thames Water.  Whether that be in their negotiations with investors, their strained relationship with Ofwat, their seemingly constant discharge of untreated sewage or their failure to meet leak targets. Headlines building on headlines, where the Thames Water story keeps getting worse. Even competitors in this year’s Boat Race between Oxford v Cambridge criticised the levels of sewage in the River Thames. 

At Save Our Lands and River, we are very very concerned about the current performance of Thames Water in fixing their leaking and creaking infrastructure, the billions of litres of untreated sewage that have already been discharged and the very real prospect of the company going into a form of special administration (see the analysis of Professor Sir Dieter Helm). We are equally concerned that despite their current failures, Thames Water are still ardently ploughing forward with the Teddington Direct River Abstraction (TDRA) scheme.

TDRA would see TW licensed not to improve the environment but in fact  allowed to damage communities  and land across south west London in order to release millions of litres of treated effluent into the river. 

How do the trevails of today affect the plans for tomorrow?

One of the areas we have been considering as part of our campaign is how the travails of today affect the poor proposals for tomorrow. Unfortunately, as with all such complicated questions, the answer is not simple. 

All water companies  have a statutory duty from Ofwat to prepare a Water Resource Management Plan (WRMP). WRMPs set out how the particular water company intends to achieve a secure supply of water for their customers while protecting and enhancing the environment. The plan must forecast the expected water supply and demand (for public water supply) over, at least, 25 years and determine a preferred programme to meet the water resource deficit by identifying and appraising a range of options. Included within the WRMP is the requirement to prepare for a 1 in 500 year drought by 2040; TDRA is actually TWs solution to their commitment to achieve resilience for a 1 in 200 year drought by 2033. 

This means that whilst TW are facing and failing significant challenges in the present day, the WRMP means they must still make plans for tomorrow. This will be the same whether they are privately owned or taken into some form of nationalisation. The opportunity to increase water bills through the introduction of a scheme such as TDRA might then become a more attractive route to future stabilisation. 

What does this mean for the SOLAR campaign?

As SOLAR, we believe that there are better and more sustainable solutions to delivering the WRMP. These include delivering, or even better exceeding their leak reduction targets. It includes good stakeholder management, encouraging all of us to manage our water resources carefully, not least in times of drought. It also involves better thinking in capturing water during times of flood and using it in times of drought (for example, during this winter in just 4 minutes, the amount of water that TW need flows past Teddington and out to sea (see our challenge to TW below).

Over the coming months we all need to hold TW to account on their current performance; to fix their leaks, to stop the sewage and to get themselves back to a sustainable business. However, regardless of whoever is in charge of TW in the weeks and months to come we need to continue to challenge the underlying assumptions, the “evidence” and the reliability of TDRA, ultimately proposing scrapping the scheme and its replacement with a long term solution that is sustainable and that we can all support.

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