For the past 20 years Lambourn has suffered from raw sewage leaks in the middle of the village which are getting worse over the years. This year the leaks started in early January 2020 and got so bad (as our video from 17/2/20 shows) that risked becoming a health hazard: also, the effluent drained into the SSSI-protected River Lambourn, one of the most environmentally protected waterways in the country. Similar problems were experienced along the Lambourn Valley and also in Aldbourne.
As well as by Penny Post, the issue been covered by Meridian TV and the Newbury Weekly News and is frequently discussed on the Lambourn Community FB group. This post is our summary of opinions and facts and will be updated as necessary. If you have anything to add to it, please use the Comments box at the foot or email firstname.lastname@example.org (or both).
Penny Post contacted a number of organisations and individuals including Thames Water, the Environment Agency, Action for the River Kennet, West Berkshire Council, West Berkshire’s Public Protection Partnership, Lambourn Parish Council, the North Wessex Down AONB, local District Councillor Howard Woollaston and local MP Laura Farris. Their comments follow below.
The problem – this year particularly near the fire station in Newbury Street, at Harris’ Bridge in Oxford Street and on Bockhampton Road near the Sports Club – has been recurring, in these and other locations in the village, for about the past 20 years, usually after periods of high rainfall and/or high groundwater levels.
The sewers were built decades ago when the population of the village was a fraction of what it is today. Opinions differ as to what there main cause is: whether the sewers are are too small for Lambourn’s current population of 4,000; if groundwater is leaking in through cracks in the pipes; if excess surface water during storms is draining into the sewers (such as via manhole covers and surface water drains); if the pumps are inadequate; or if the problem is due to some combination of these and/or something else.
The most likely main cause is the volume of ground water and surface water getting into the sewers. Our chalk substructure holds ground water like a sponge, and the ground water leaks into the pipes through cracks in the pipes. During heavy rainfall, surface water can drain into sewers as well. As more houses are built in the area, the volume and speed of surface water draining increases as there is less exposed land for surface water to soak into.
No solution has solved the problem, the result being that the matter is dealt with each time by mitigating its symptoms, (usually by sending a constant flow of tankers to syphon water and sewage out of the sewage system and drive it to Wantage or Newbury).
An additional problem, as pointed out in the response from Lambourn Parish Council below, is that Thames Water is only responsible for its own sewers. There are hundreds of others, the responsibility of homeowners or landlords such as West Berkshire Council or Sovereign, which feed into these. In a rural area some of these, such as from farms, might run for several hundred yards. Making the entire local network impermeable clearly presents a massive challenge.
22 June 2020 update
A virtual meeting of the Lambourn Valley Flood Forum took place on 22 June with 19 participants. A number of matters were discussed but the notes below are only concerned with the discussion about sewage issues in Lambourn and Eastbury. This have been taken verbatim from the report of the meeting. The comments made by representatives of the Environment Agency and Thames Water (generally answers) are in red; those made by anyone else (generally questions) are in black.
AH: Andrew Hagger (Thames Water, in charge of planning for Lambourn Valley)
KN: Karen Nelson (Thames Water)
RH: Richard Hancock (Environment Agency)
HB: Heather Bond (Environment Agency)
HW: Howard Woollaston (Ward Member for Lambourn on West Berkshire Council)
AG: Andrew Gorton (Eastbury Flood Warden)
DB: David Barber
OS: Oliver Steed
GK: Gareth Knass (Great Shefford Parish Council)
AH: Previous works were not extensive enough. Will look at options for 2020-21, but no easy answers.
HW: What about by the fire sation in Lambourn?
AH: Have put in a resin liner
KN: Tankering kept on top of it in most of valley, but not by the fire station, where put in acoustic barriers. Put a ‘unit’ in place late March to deal with flows, that could not keep up with by tinkering alone. Manoeuvring was difficult in such a small area. Removed all the solids, and improved the quality of discharge
HW: So we are no closer to a final solution?
KN: We are investigating
DB: How far does the lining go?
AH: Lining is focused on where we found defects. The problem with ingress is it can be a minor defect.
HW: Is it a common problem?
AH: Yes, affects many areas with chalk including Wessex Water.
HW: Is it a problem caused by the residents?
AH: Residential pipes are usually much shallower.
HW: If money was no object what would you do?
KN: We have come across a number of places where water is pumped in to protect properties.
OS: Lambourn is now dry, tankers are apparently now flushing out the sewers.
AH: At Aldbourne we looked at improving surface drainage
DB: Can the system cope with the normal sewage without groundwater?
AH: Yes, no problem in summer.
DB So there is no overall plan to deal with groundwater?
AH: Would take hundreds of millions to deal with the overall system
DB: So we can expect a repeat?
AH: Karen and her team have done an excellent job on finding the problems. Tackling at source is the only way.
AG: Round table with Laura Farris agreed to propose a strategy for a longer term solution. Trying to focus on a valley wide solution. ituation is being monitored by Laura’s office, and working on deciding the multi agency membership to address the problem. Accept it is a function of the geology, so looking to TW and other agencies to produce a report on what could be done, eg are pumping stations adequate. As laypeople we can see there are pinch points where problems occur. For example: can we direct flows from springs? Know it is a long term challenge. Have engagement from Julia Simpson of the EA, who has nominated Richard Hancock to participate in multi agency task force with Stewart from WBC.
RH: I will indeed be EA point of contact for multi-agency task force. Can’t however, be the person to participate from an ecological point of view, so will advise who can support.
KN: Will let you know who can support from TW. Using innovative technology to investigate, but there will not be one magic bullet. Understand the issues at the pumping station at Bockhampton, but it is a critical spot since anxious to prevent the pump burning out. Would be a massive challenge to replace the pump at such a high flow.
AG: Three data sets at Maidencourt showed 3x standard phosphorous effect, and concerned about the effect on the ecology. The unit installed by the fire station was a filter unit, which removed solids but not other pollutants, sampling report which measured 600m did not include phosphorous. No one has a handle on the amount of phosphorous discharged over many months and the effect it has downstream.
RH: It is something we can look at. There are seven points along the Lambourn where we monitor on a monthly basis, so we will have several years of data to compare with last winter.
GK: Has Natural England been involved?
RH: Don’t know but will investigate.
AG: Where are the seven points, are they down stream of sewage treatment plants?
KN: TW, EA and Natural England met at the end of March.
HB: Can easily find out for you where the sampling points are. Can circulate the publicly available information. In general we are struggling for funds on monitoring, and would be difficult to do more.
OS: Would be many willing volunteers willing to do the monitoring.
HB: will investigate.
AG: We have willing participants.
HB: Need to keep proper health and safety , and only have 25% capacity in our labs during the Covid-19 emergency. Even if citizens send in samples, there could be a problem.
11 June 2020 update
The groundwater beneath the Lambourn Valley recedes, and with it so does the problem of the sewage (for now at least). The main issue, most agree, is that because the pipes run through the water table, when this is high the pressure forces water in through any cracks (and probably enlarging them in the process). A secondary problem is caused by ruin-off from gutters and roads entering the sewage system through damaged manholes or inappropriate connections.
Lambourn Parish Council confirmed to Penny Post on 10 June 2020 that ‘the groundwater levels have dropped sufficiently for the ATAC (sewage filter) outside the fire station to be removed. There is now no sewage escaping the sewage system.’ It was also stressed that there is now a short time window for Thames Water (TW) to examine further groundwater infiltration before the water table drops below the sewer pipes. TW is keen to receive any information about any area where flooding occurs in the parish as this could suggest a problem.
if you have any information that might be useful to TW, please email email@example.com. Obviously, the main responsibility rests with TW as only their robotic cameras can detect where water is infiltrating (and only when the water table is above the level of the pipes). There are about 50km of sewers in the Lambourn Valley, of which TW is responsible for about 25km. About 8km of these have been re-lined.
3 April 2020 update
Lambourn Parish Council Chairman Michael Billinge-Jones asked Thames Water some questions to which he has received replies. These were published on the Lambourn Community FB page on 4 April:
Q: Will sewage extracted taken from the manhole cover outside the fire station, filtered then allowed to run into the river?
A: Yes – the dirty water will get pumped from the manhole outside the fire station to the top of the ATAC filter unit. The dirty water then travels through the filtering unit to the bottom, which then safely discharges into the river through a pipe.
Q: Will the generator be running 24 hours a day?
A: Yes .
Q: What will happen to the extracted waste? (I assume it will be removed by tankers?)
A: The extracted waste makes its way through the filter, then this gets safely discharged into the river. The ECO Filter is a biological filter designed to remove biological loading from wastewater, whilst adding dissolved oxygen into the effluent flow. There is also a matting located the top of the filter which will collect any solids so its just water which passes through. This matting will then get maintained weekly by either cleaning or replacing.
Q: Is the Environment Agency aware of your works and subsequent discharge into the river?
A: Yes we have been working with the EA. We are also carrying out daily readings of the river to ensure no impact to the river, which can be shared with the EA.
Thames Water (TW) has been quick to point out that flooding is affecting many parts of its area and the problem is not unique to Lambourn (but this is the area PP is concerned with).
After the last big rainfall in 2014, TW published this Drainage Strategy for the East Shefford Catchment (Lambourn is part of the sewage system that flows into East Shefford).
In 2019, TW published an updated East Shefford Drainage Strategy report (this appears to be an updated version) which includes photos of groundwater entering the sewage pipes. This promises more monitoring but no commitment to an engineering solution. All water companies will by 2022 will be producing a Drainage and Wastewater Management Plan which will include plans for capital and other works. Perhaps, therefore, we have some potential to influence what they propose. Public consultations should form a part of these measures.
On 19 February 2020 we asked TW the following questions:
- What in your view is the cause of the problem;
- What measures, in summary, have been taken to address this in the past;
- What plans you have to address this permanently now;
- How long you think this will take to resolve?
Their reply was: ‘Following a very wet period at the end of last year and recent heavy rainfall, groundwater levels in the Lambourn area are the highest they’ve been for a number of years so our sewers are carrying far more wastewater than they have capacity for and the system is full. We’re using tankers to remove as much excess waste as we can to protect customers and the environment from flooding and are sorry for any disturbance. We’ll keep the tankers in the area for as long as they’re needed.’
A later question, concerning whether the mitigation could have been prepared for earlier, revealed that TW had ‘had tankers and extra teams working all across the region. It’s not possible to have a tanker parked up ready at every potential flooding location.’ The spokesperson also said that ‘a lot of resources’ were in place at Lambourn including ‘high-pressure jets to force the backed up sewage through the system and reduce the risk of it spilling out.’ It was also confirmed that TW has ‘drainage strategies ongoing which look at how we can reduce the amount of rainwater and groundwater that gets into our sewers in the first place as it’s not a problem unique to Lambourn.’
As mentioned above, the last point is certainly a fair one. However, the chalk-based topography of the area with the consequent high levels of groundwater is, if not unique, certainly quite rare. If the problem is caused by groundwater leaking into the pipes, it would seem that this area’s sewers might require a different approach from elsewhere, permeability being perhaps less of a problem in some areas than here. The spokesperson said they were ‘not aware that there are different types of sewers’ in this way. It was also admitted that ‘part of the problem is groundwater infiltration through cracks and joins in pipes,’ and that TW ‘carried out a lot of relining work following the wet winter of 2013/14 which has eased the problem but clearly not fully solved it.’
Some people feel that the re-lining of the pipes has actually made the problem worse as it not reduced the ingress of groundwater in the pipes but has reduced the diameter of the pipes from six to five inches, thereby reducing the flow capacity of the pipes. Another solution might be to add a storm overflow tank in Lambourn, upstream from the areas that flood, to take the excess flows. This would be a significant cost, but would save TW having to send out loads of tankers whenever there’s a storm and/or high groundwater levels.
We also asked TW about the Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans, ‘the new way for organisations to work together to improve drainage and environmental water quality.’ TW’s spokesperson confirmed that ‘the ongoing drainage strategy work is looking into root causes which must be fully understood.’
TW has also said that the causes of the problem need to be shared between TW itself, individual property and business owners and landlords (such as local councils and social-housing providers). This point has also been made by Lambourn Parish Council (see below). The latter two groups are responsible for the quality of the sewers that connect their properties to the mains. We have asked TW to confirm what percentage of the total sewer pipes in the Lambourn area fall into each of these three groups.
• March 2020 update
In early March 2020 we asked TW some further questions: these and the answers, received on 13 March, are as follows:
PP: Could you update us on the progress of your drainage strategy work to look at the root causes of the flooding? When can we expect a report on this?
TW: Following the 2013/14 flooding in Lambourn we carried out lining activity to reduce groundwater flows entering our network. This winter we have seen continued issues in the catchment. We are using this time to capture further information on locations of groundwater ingress into the network with further look-and-lift and CCTV surveys. We will be in a position to update the parish in the summer. We will also be updating our Drainage Strategy documents over the summer period ready for next winter.
PP: What potential solutions will you be considering and when would you expect to start work on the selected solution?
TW: Potential solutions may include lining or sealing of manholes but we can’t confirm when work may start as the weather will impact both the investigation of these and the solution. Any minor fixes will be carried out as a matter of course by our operations teams but large-scale lining and sealing will need to go through our usual business approval processes for capital funding. We will be in a better position to update on this in the summer.
It’s important to recognise that we need to tackle the problem at source – this means stopping the flows entering our sewer in the first place, rather than looking at major construction projects to accommodate the excess water. Although we have carried out lining activity this has obviously not solved the problem; hence the further investigations.
PP: What further temporary measures will you undertake to prevent further flooding?
TW: We are tankering in the area to manage the flows in the network to try and reduce the local flooding. We’ve also used temporary measures such a sandbags to mitigate some of the issues.
PP: Is increasing the amount of storage upstream from the current flooding a potential solution?
TW: We would not look to increase storage upstream in the network. Storage solutions do not work with infiltration issues as the additional space just draws down the groundwater even further so the storage has no positive impact on capacity. We need to tackle the problem at source, ie keeping the groundwater out of our systems. Equally, we cannot upsize the network to cope with flows as this will again just remain full as we draw down the aquifer and will cause treatment problems at downstream sewage-treatment works.
PP: What has been the impact of the sewer overflows on the River Lambourn, an SSSI? Has any limit to sewage discharges or water quality standards been exceeded?
TW: To the best of our knowledge there has been no detrimental impact on either the watercourse or the SSSI. Clearly this doesn’t mean we’re not making efforts to keep any wastewater out of them both.
PP: I understand that TW has recently contacted people in Lambourn and perhaps elsewhere offering a service by which privately-owned sewers could be maintained by TW. That being the case, surely Is TW writing to everyone about this?
TW: I think you might be referring to the letters sent out by Homeserve whom we endorse as a company which provides home emergency cover. It’s essentially marketing materials from Homeserve in case customers want to buy in to the service they provide. The offer go to all customers unless they’ve specially asked not to receive this type of info. More details can be found here.
PP: I understand that there are three ‘owners’ of sewers: you; households; and landlords like local councils or housing associations. Are you able to provide, by length or by volume, figures for how these three areas of ownership divide up in the Lambourn area? Three percentages to the nearest say 5% would be enough.
TW: We wouldn’t be able to give a figure for this because we don’t have private/landlords’ mapping. The calculation you suggested isn’t viable and we’re not prepared to quote guestimates. Also our local team are extremely busy so I’m not going to ask them to take time away from their work to add up the lengths of the pipes we have in Lambourn.
Regarding this last point, TW (and other organisations like Lambourn PC) have stressed several times that the sewage system is not entirely TW’s responsibility due to the number of pipes that connect the main network to private properties. Lambourn PC has suggested (see below) that the majority of pipes fit into this category. It’s to be expected that they would be just as vulnerable to groundwater: so, unless these are also fixed, the problem is likely to continue. One local householder PP spoke to said that he had recently replaced the short stretch of sewer connecting his house to the mains as it was found to have been leaking. This can’t have been the only one.
The first step would seem to be to get an idea of how many such pipes there are. TW has said that it doesn’t know. Does any organisation, such as any of the councils, hold such records? Given the antiquity of some of the pipes, it’s possible that no one knows how many there are nor exactly where they are: and this is even before the question of establishing ownership, and thus responsibility. All of this would seem to make the challenge of fixing all the pipes in the area a daunting one.
The Environment Agency
We asked The Environment Agency (EA) on 18 February if it had any comment and in particular whether it is taking any action about this incident. I was told that the EA’s time and resources were currently occupied with the aftermath of Storm Dennis but that a reply would be provided as soon as possible.
The EA’s remit, according to its web page on Gov.uk, is to ‘work to create better places for people and wildlife, and support sustainable development,’ which seems suitably wide. One of its responsibilities is to prosecute polluting companies: the largest was in 2017 when the above-mentioned Thames Water was fined over £20m. The EA is cagey about commenting on intended or ongoing prosecutions but I understand that it’s unlikely that action will be taken against TW in this case. One of the issues is one of proof, it being difficult to establish that any loss or damage to the river’s habitat can be proved as a result of the leak. Like any organisation, the EA has finite resources and perhaps prosecuting water companies for domestic sewage leaks would be a full-time job on its own. The fact that raw sewage is all over Newbury Street doesn’t seem to be part of the EA’s concern: if that’s not part of its remit then it’s impossible to criticise the officers on this point. Whether the remit needs to be changed is another matter.
West Berkshire Council and Public Protection Partnership
We contacted West Berkshire Council (WBC) and West Berkshire’s Public Protection Partnership (PPP) on 19 February to try to establish where their responsibilities started and finished, particularly regarding the human impact. A spokesperson for both organisations said that ‘Ultimately, the issue lies with Thames Water because it is their sewer/sewage. The council may have a peripheral role to play in terms of public/environmental health, emergency planning and Streetworks in helping to manage this problem when it occurs, but they have no means of solving it.’ This would suggest that WBC is the point of contact for any public-health issues. I presume that WBC is communicating effectively with TW on this.
We spoke to Local District Councillor Howard Woollaston on 18 February and he replied: ‘It has been very unfortunate that I have been out of the UK for two weeks with limited access to emails when we have had two major storms, with the inevitable effect that has had on an already saturated ground causing a huge rise in the water table level, frequently above sewage pipes. A lot of the sewage pipes are old and in some cases cracked . Thames Water have relined 8.5km of pipes around Lambourn over recent years but it clearly hasn’t resolved the problem. I will be in touch with various organisations in the morning trying to find a long term solution and will report back through Penny Post. I am so sorry for those of you who have been affected by this most unpleasant occurrence.’
Lambourn Parish Council
We contacted Lambourn Parish Council (LPC) on 20 February and received the following statement from the Chairman:
“Members of LPC have had several meetings over the past few weeks with our MP Laura Farris and representatives from Thames Water on the cause of sewage escaping from the sewer manhole outside the fire station (and lately other manholes near the river). A letter from TW has been prepared and will be delivered to local residents in the next day or so. LPC will make sure a copy will be available in the library and the Lambourn info web site.
“I would also suggest that residents look at the OFWAT website regarding responsibility for maintaining pipes and sewers. It contains useful information and diagrams showing where responsibility lies. Basically the sewer network is ‘owned’ by three bodies: Thames Water; property owners (business and households) and landlords (such as WBC and Sovereign Housing).
“Although TW has lined over 8.5km of sewers there is significantly more than this in private hands and I suspect that this maybe where much of the groundwater infiltration occurs. TW will continue to examine its network and possibly undertake further works to seal it, once water levels reduce. But as stated by OFWAT, it is only responsible for its own parts of the sewer.
“This unfortunate situation will be with us till the water table subsides below the sewer level and the tankers may be in attendance for some weeks to come.”
See also the section near the top of the post concerning four questions posed by LPC to TW and the responses.
Local MP Laura Farris
We contacted Local MP Laura Farris on 18 February and she replied: ‘As soon as the situation in Lambourn was brought to my attention, I got in touch with the Emergency Team at Thames Water, who despatched a repair team to Lambourn that evening.
‘The following day I came to Lambourn to see the situation for myself. I was disappointed with what I saw. No one should have to tolerate raw sewage in the streets and I was informed that the initial repair work undertaken overnight had not yet resolved the matter. A second team was sent out with specialist equipment but in the meantime the local school had been closed due to a lack of running water. Local residents were rightly concerned and I continued to liaise with the Emergency Team at Thames Water and to update my constituents via social media.
‘On Friday evening, I was informed that the Baydon Road pipe had been fixed and the water supply had returned. Whilst that was a relief, I understand that this is part of a long-term structural problem and that similar incidents to this occur annually in and around Lambourn. As a result, I returned to Lambourn on Monday to meet with senior representatives of Thames Water to ask what they will be doing to find a long-term solution. The intermediary work that has taken place so far has evidently been insufficient to prevent this from becoming an annual problem and at this stage I think every option needs to be kept on the table.’
Action for the River Kennet
We contacted Charlotte Hitchmough, Director of Action for the River Kennet (ARK), the rivers’ trust for the Kennet catchment (which includes the River Lambourn) on 19 February and she replied as follows: ‘Raw sewage flowing into a chalk stream is not OK. We understand that high groundwater is difficult to manage, and that in some areas Thames Water has made significant investment in improving the condition of sewers to reduce the problem. However, this is not a problem that is going to easily go away and our rivers, particularly chalk streams, should be free from pollution. Water companies need to make serious investment to improve their infrastructure so that it is fit for this century.’
OFWAT is the economic regulator of the water sector in England and Wales. Water companies keep up-to-date maps of sewers and water mains for which they are responsible. Most but not all pipes within an individual property boundary are the property owner’s responsibility to maintain. Here is its breakdown of who has responsibility for pipes and sewers.