The Thames Water Authority, which began work on 1 April 1974, merged the Conservancy’s functions with those of the water suppliers along the river. It lasted fifteen years before the suppliers were detached as distinct, private firms.
Thames Water is now the UK’s biggest water and wastewater services provider. It looks after 15 million customers across London, the Thames Valley and surrounding areas, providing daily some 2.6 billion litres of drinking water and removing 4.6 billion litres of wastewater.
It also has additional responsibilities to the natural environment. It works in partnership with other organisations along the river to improve its health and increase biodiversity.
In 1989, when Thames Water was privatised, the National Rivers Authority was created, and in 1996 this merged with other bodies to become the Environment Agency. Today, the Environment Agency also works to protect and improve the River Thames. It continues many activities formerly carried out by the Conservancy, having numerous responsibilities for the river and its tributaries as well as the soil and rocks that lie beneath it.
One of the biggest changes in the river’s management is the importance now placed on its source: the many aquifers from which the water springs. The ‘groundwater’ in these aquifers is an important source of water for industrial purposes, agriculture, and the production of drinking water.
The Environment Agency regulates abstraction from the aquifers. Permits must be issued and the amount of water that can be taken out is strictly controlled. Water levels are monitored and mapped to forecast rainfall, allowing for restrictions to be placed during prolonged periods of dry weather.
Graph showing aquifer levels at Houndean Bottom, Sussex, from a Thames river basin Water Situation Report
(reproduced by permission of the Environment Agency)
Fish are a key part of the health of the river and its leisure economy. Over recent years there have been various efforts to improve the river’s flow and help fish feed and breed. Many of the Conservancy’s redundant works have been removed – old weirs and sluices, concrete and steel edgings to the bank – to return the river to a natural state. Fish ladders and channels have been installed around remaining structures, while a partnership between the Environment Agency and Thames Water has provided ‘fish screens’ at all the water abstraction points, preventing them from being sucked out of the river. The result is that freshwater fish, salmon and eel populations have grown and fisheries along the river have increased.
A new area of investment is flood risk management – reducing flood risks and responding to events, supporting communities and minimising the impact of floods. The river’s water levels, groundwater and soil saturation are monitored 24 hours a day and regular forecasts made to predict flooding. Alerts are issued when risks rise and severe warnings are used to protect lives and livelihoods.
Existing flood defences are maintained and new ones built. Some of these can take years to plan but reduce the risks for thousands of properties, such as the Jubilee River, which forms part of the Maidenhead, Windsor and Eton Flood Alleviation Scheme. During the 2020s the Environment Agency expects to better protect 18,000 more properties along the length of the non-tidal Thames.
Leisure users of the river are probably its most visible group today. The Thames still provides a navigable right of way for safe boating from Cricklade to Teddington. A dedicated team of specialists, including lock-keepers, and supported by volunteers works across 45 sites to keep the river open to craft of all types, and the pounds created by the Commissioners two centuries ago continue to require substantial investment and maintenance. Tolls and boat registration fees support this work, with considerable additional funding provided by Government.
Linked with this is the creation of the Thames Path. In July 1996 the old towpath was established as a national trail under the same legislation that created the national parks. It covers 184 miles of the river, allowing almost continuous access to its banks. There is a Thames Path Partnership that is responsible for maintaining and promoting the trail.