A letter from Thames Water, 9 March 2024

On 9 March, the letter below from Thames Water (TW’s) was sent to a number of parish councils and other organisations in the Lambourn area. We’re happy to reproduce it verbatim (with a few formatting changes) below. The intention was that it be circulated.

First I’ll tell you what in it I agree with. Then I’ll tell you with what I do not.

  • Only flushing the three Ps – poo, pee and paper – down toilets is a good one point and one we’ve been pushing, on behalf of TW, for some time.
  • I also agree with TW’s diagnosis of the underlying cause (groundwater coming in through cracks in the pipes).
  • I also agree it’s been wet recently. We all know that.

However…

  • One of the main themes of this letter is that “sewer abuse” (the term is used in a caption of photos at the foot of the letter, which I haven’t reproduced) is the real cause of the problem. In other words, this is all our fault.
  • There’s also the candid admission, made more than once, that TW’s system has been overwhelmed and quotes what appear to be extenuating circumstances of recent exceptional weather. However, this ignores a basic point that it’s overloaded anyway during high-groundwater levels and increasingly has been for years.
  • The “what we are doing” section include remedial measures that are admissions of failure.
  • The reference to private sewers is largely specious as the powers exist, if TW and WBC co-operate, to compel owners to act.
  • As for “working round the clock”, well, TW’s staff are paid. People bailing out their houses or toilets aren’t, indeed have to pay TW for the privilege.
  • The descriptions of “what we are doing” and “what we have done” are merely recitations of some of TW’s statutory responsibilities.

Let’s look at just a few of the facts:

Other similar statistics are available. We’re clearly dealing with a company with form.

I’ve been sent a number of comments about this communication. Not being sure that this will be read after the 9pm watershed, it seems safer not to quote them.

Let’s not be under any illusions: this letter, although it contains some useful information and updates, is essentially a piece of PR which is trying to shift the issues. We all know that there are challenges caused by development, decaying infrastructure, climate change, intensive farming and a reduction of permeable surfaces. However, this is what the water companies signed up to deal with when privatisation happened in 1989.

I have some sympathy for the middle-ranking and local staff who are now reaping this bitter harvest. However, this does not mean we need to accept the corporate arguments as to how the water giant is “doing its best.” Its best is not good enough, as even it seems to admit.

Proof of how well a public monopoly – and its regulator, which is a separate issue – are doing can best be judged by how many pressure groups there are. In the Lambourn Valley, there are for TW an embarrassingly large number. Two more have been set up this week. We’ll be providing more information about their work in the future and also subjecting any communications we receive from official bodies to analysis. The tests on water in the Lambourn or on the streets of the villages are currently less than reassuring. I’m afraid that much the same can be said for this letter.

 

Hello,

We have asked for your support in the past with our Bin it Don’t Block it campaign, can we have your help again to stop unflushables being put in the sewers and finding their way onto the streets in the flooding that we are trying to manage and is made more challenging from this debris.

Groundwater levels in Lambourn are the highest they have been in 30 years, and we’ve had one of the wettest 12 months on record. The wet weather has overwhelmed our sewer network with groundwater, surface water and flood water, which gets into our pipes via infiltration by sewers and manholes as well as getting in through privately owned drainage pipes. Some of the extra flows we are seeing also enters our network from mis-connected roof drainage.

Because rainwater soaks into the ground slowly, groundwater levels can continue to rise long after the rain has stopped. This means it will take a long time for the extra water to leave our system, even once the rain stops. We are aware of the impact this has had on the village and we apologies for any inconvenience this has caused, our primary concern is to stop flooding and any environmental impact.

Our investigations have highlighted the number of inappropriate items such as wet wipes, sanitary products, and cotton buds etc. These cause blockages in the filter unit located on Newbury Street and can stop the sewage pumping stations and treatment works from doing their jobs properly. As you are seeing, these items also impact the village when the manholes overflow. We are carrying out daily clean-ups, however once we’ve finished these non-flushable items are appearing again in the cleaned area almost immediately.

We are working hard to keep our sewers flowing and prevent flooding, but these non-flushable items are making this harder, so it’s important we all follow the guidelines.

How can you help?

Sewers are only designed to take away water, toilet tissue and human waste – everything else belongs in the bin. With your help we can reduce these unsightly items spilling onto your streets.

  • Do not flush wipes down the toilet, even if they are labelled as ‘flushable’. They’re made of plastic and won’t break down like toilet tissue.
  • Nappies and sanitary products belong in the bin, never down the toilet. They will clog pipes and cause blockages.
  • Never pour fat or oil from cooking down the sink. Let it cool, pour it into a container and put it in the bin. Please remember: Bin it – don’t block it.

What did we find?

To help illustrate the problem, we have provided photos [in the original letter] from our filter unit and an area where the sewer is flooding. Large amounts of paper and rag, including wet wipes, kitchen/hand paper towels and sanitary products are being removed from these locations daily and the temporary filter unit we are using in the village the needs regular cleaning.

Find out more

If you would like any more information or would like to order some of our free fat traps to store your used cooking fat, please visit our website.

Challenges

The wet weather has overwhelmed our sewer network with groundwater, surface water and flood water. It comes from many sources, including infiltration into our sewers and manholes, as well as those owned privately. It also enters our network from cross connected roof drainage. Because rainwater soaks into the ground slowly, groundwater levels can continue to rise long after the rain has stopped. This means it will take a long time for the extra water to leave our system, even once the rain stops.

This water shouldn’t be in our sewers as they aren’t designed to hold it. Once they reach capacity, the water, mixed with untreated sewage, can cause floods and pollutions.

What we are doing

  • We are cleaning these areas daily where our manholes have been overflowing, Oxford Street, Newbury Street, and a bridle path in Upper Lambourn.
  • We are using tankers at the Upper Lambourn Sewage Pumping Stations 24 hours a day to help manage excessive flows in the sewers and have a filter unit on the footpath next to the Fire Station. This unit works by a pump feeding the water out of our foul sewer into the unit so it can be filtered and then safely discharged to the watercourse.
  • We regularly monitor the River Lambourn to check for any impact, this monitoring has shown a minimal impact as it is heavily diluted by the groundwater and surface water.
  • We regularly keep the Environment Agency updated on these results.
  • We continue to investigate sources of groundwater and surface water which are entering our sewer system. This will include camera surveys and reviewing data from sewer monitors which have previously been installed in the sewers. This will help us prioritise locations for investigation.

What we have done

We have been a continuing member of the multi-agency Lambourn Valley Flood Forum since it started, keeping them updated on our many investigations and work completed in the Lambourn Valley. Over the years we have installed 10.1km of specialist leak tight liners in our sewers, and sealed 122 manholes in the Lambourn Valley sewer network and have removed a private well connection to the foul water sewer in Upper Lambourn.

More information can be found on our website and select the Groundwater Impact System Management Plan for East Shefford.

We’re here to help

Our staff and contractors have been working around the clock for the last few months and whilst we appreciate that there is more to do, we are all trying our best and are committed to help improve the situation in Lambourn.

If you have any questions, please call our 24-hour customer centre on 0800 316 9800 or email oncustomer.feedback@thameswater.co.uk quoting your address and reference number BB00469723.

Thank you for your help to reduce the impact.

Yours faithfully,

Denise Kinsella
Customer and Stakeholder Manager

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