From the exit of Kew Gardens underground station in West London, there are wonders in both directions. To the right, a bridge leads to Kew Gardens, a horticultural marvel. To the left, a road leads to the River Thames, the great artery of a great city. "Sweet Thames," wrote the 16 th-century poet Edmund Spenser, "run softly till I end my song." The Thames still runs, but it's often not sweet, which is why I turn left out of the station and head for an unassuming boathouse painted blue. This is the Putney Town Rowing Club, but it's also the headquarters of Rowers Against Thames Sewage, a vocal lobby group founded by PTRC member and graphic designer Anatole Beams.
Beams began rowing five years ago, when foot-and-mouth disease curtailed his passion for rambling. He loved it, until one day in August 2004 when he and his wife had rowed three miles upriver to Mogen, the huge sewage-treatment works that takes the waste of West London. Then, says Beams, leaning on the clubhouse balcony overlooking the river, "We noticed that our oars were in sludge. The river was like thick brown soup. It was like rowing in a sewer." Beams knew that there are outflow pipes all along the river—63, in fact—that are used to slosh excess flow into the river when the sewage system is overloaded during storms. He knew, for example, that there were six outflow pipes just near Richmond, "because you can tell from the seagulls. They love it." But he'd never seen anything like this, with the waters "covered with grease and debris." He's being polite: By "debris" he means condoms, sanitary napkins, and visible human feces. He was shocked enough to decide to investigate. First he formed RATS, and then he set up a Web site to publicize his findings. By November 2004, RATS had enough members—from 30 or so boat clubs—to organize the Thames Turd Race. Held on the same stretch of river that hosts the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, the Turd Race saw two boats—Gashaz and Biohaz—tow giant inflatable feces for 800 meters, with the rowers all clad in gas-masks. Biohaz stormed to victory.
Beams is mostly driven by shock. Like most people, he thought sewage didn't end up in rivers anymore. Like most people, he assumed that in these days of ceramic toilets, heated toilet seats, and automatic flushes, progress has brought us sensible ways of removing human waste, safely and cleanly. He thought that dumping it into the river was what the unenlightened did; the Victorians of old or developing countries that can do no better. Hadn't the Thames been cleaned up? Once one of the most polluted rivers in Europe—by the 1970s, industrial waste and filth had killed off most fish and wildlife, and anyone falling into its waters was advised to have their stomach pumped—it had been cleaned and regulated. The wildlife had returned. Today, London's authorities can legitimately boast of herons, kingfishers, and abundant fish. They just don't mention the sewage that swims along with the river life.
"I realized that the whole system is creaking at the seams," says Beams. Joseph Bazalgette's great sewer system can be overloaded by a sudden storm in a dry season. The sewage-treatment plants don't have the capacity for the extra sewage or water, and their Combined Sewage and Stormwater Outfalls discharge sewage into the Thames so that they don't flood streets and houses. The floods of August 2004, Beams discovered, were just a particularly bad version of what was happening at least once a week. What's more, Thames Water has a virtual free pass to dump sewage into the tideway. The company is regulated by the European Union's Urban Waste Water directive, but sewage outflows remain at the discretion of the water authority. The consequences aren't hazardous just for fish. There are always pathogens present in the river, but "they definitely increase around outfall pipes." Rowers are advised to use water bottles with covered tops, to immediately wash all scratches, and to always, always shower after an outing.
We take a walk along the river path. It's not long before we spot plastic hanging off a branch, near to the outflow pipe that links Kew sewage works to the river, a few hundred meters away from the clubhouse. The Kew facility is operating only at partial capacity, since Thames Water transferred its sewage treatment to Mogen, then sold off the prime riverfront land to developers. There's a heron sitting on the river bank, and the water is calm. "It's quite a placid stretch here anyway," Beams. "Good for rowing." The river is pretty clean these days, so RATS hasn't been active. But the "river condition" warning system on the RATS Web site flashes continually at amber, signifying "regular sewage discharge."
Things may have been quiet, but RATS won't give up. Beams is keeping a close eye on the case being brought by European MP Baroness Ludford against Thames Water, which has never been fined for the events of August 2004. He's also following the progress of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, the $3 billion storm drain that Thames Water and the Environment Agency think is the only solution to the overloaded system's problems. Beams thinks it's a solution that doesn't address the causes of the problem. He'd prefer to separate storm and sewage drainage. It's been done in the London borough of Acton, but the Environment Agency says it would take years and require too many roads to be excavated to do it here. The public already complains when water mains are being repaired. So, the tunnel is the most likely next step.
Meanwhile, Beams will continue his research and will continue to row, with an eye out for feces. He doesn't expect RATS to fold any time soon. He's calm but determined. "I don't consider Thames Water the enemy. The guys at the coal face live for their work. It's just that the more you find out, the worse things seem to be. And until things get worse, they won't get better."
Rose George is the author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters.