I could feel it all over again this Christmas, the sense of deja-vu, of raw sewage running between my fingers and toes. The Oxford DODO Swim had been on the 17th of December. There had been a strong turn-out, with much good cheer and cake being shared in the few hours of this swim, with much marvelling on what a beautiful spot for swimming this is, how the cold water swimming community continues to grow. We who attended even forgot about sewage in the Thames at Oxford for a few hours.
But there it was again, just a few days later, like last year when I got truly outraged at an email from Thames Water (The Company That Just Keeps Giving), a Christmas present of the wrong kind, an hour or so after midnight and Christmas Day. They had taken a festive dump in the river and we who swim in this river, The Thames, had to choose between swallowing Thames Water’s notification and cancelling the Christmas Day swim at Port Meadow (and several swims, days thereafter), or trying not to swallow fecally-contaminated Thames water while swimming. Last year, The Company That Just Keeps Giving gave us in Oxford and Oxfordshire Twelve Days of Sewage. This year it has been a little better. I thought about diminishing the font for the word ‘little’, to represent how little that little better is, but in fear that you would not be able to read it and just assume that it has gotten better, I haven’t done that. It hasn’t gotten much better, at least with bathing water quality, The Company That Just Keeps Giving has to give more information now, so that at least we swimmer-users can see when dumping happens, and can see how contaminated the river is. That’s progress of a kind. As is the newspaper headline that persuaded me to buy a physical copy of a newspaper for the first time in years. In the December 30th issue of the Oxford Mail it says, on the front page, ‘SORRY’ (capitals, in red), followed by ‘Water firm offers sewage apology over ruined swim’ (lower case, white on black block background). I had been in the village Co-op buying a few items of food, when the Oxford Mail roared its headline at the check-out counter.
I took it home and read with interest. I turned to page five for the full article, which mentioned Thames Water’s alerts to five discharges between December 21st and 28th, immediately upstream of Oxford. I read the heading to the article - ‘Water firm’s latest sewage spills scupper festive swim’. I knew that should have been plural – swims – since people swim every day at Port Meadow. The article went on to state that that swimmers had been forced to cancel their ‘Boxing Day river dip at Port Meadow’. I am used to inaccurate reporting, but this was a gross underestimate of how much swimming was been lost to sewage over the Christmas period.
Since it takes four days for the water to clear after a discharge of raw sewage (according to Thames Water), it’s probably safe to say that thirteen swimming days will have been lost to sewage, assuming that no more had gone in since the 28th. But who knows? Swimmers here in Oxford and Oxfordshire are now glued to their social media for announcements of raw sewage discharge into the local rivers. Sewage is an everyday topic of conversation. Swims are cancelled or relocated, often at the last minute.
Meanwhile, Thames Water has said ‘I’m Sorry’, and that’s a step in the right direction, but it still feels hollow without the second part of the apology, which is ‘I promise not to do it again’. To be honest, I can’t see how they can say ‘I promise not to do it again’ without seeming totally fake. But they give the appearance of trying to improve their record. Their Annual Report and Sustainability Report of 2021/22 states that they are committed to reducing spills, and they have added the annual number of sewage spills to their list of Key Performance Indicators now. For the record, they give Environment Agency data for sewage spills in 2021 as having been just under 15,000, twenty percent down from a little of 18,000 in 2020. Maybe I should be cheered by this, but I have no way of knowing if they just do fewer and bigger dumps now. And to put it into a context a swimmer can easily navigate, the 2021 figure represents about 40 dumps a day along the 350 kilometers or so of the Thames. And given that they say it takes four days to clear, it suggests that on average around 45 percent of the river is contaminated at any given time. I know that it’s much worse in some places than others, that some stretches of the river are less likely to be contaminated than others, and that it varies by season and rainfall, but it gives pause for thought.
Fixing it isn’t simple. I wrote a short piece about the disconnects between legislation, regulation, provision, and use, that have gotten us here, into this watery mess – it is freely available in the Publications section of this website. We know the dumping of raw sewage in the rivers is wide-spread, and with the River Thames we have some idea of the scale of it. A sincere apology takes responsibility, acknowledging and taking responsibility for the problem, having an idea of how it will be fixed, and having a system in place to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. It’s a tough call, but I look forward to the time when Thames Water makes the full apology, not just ‘I’m sorry’. But also ‘I promise not to do it again’.
The headline and page five image courtesy of the Oxford Mail