A ULEZ for the Thames? And other London water clean-up measures

A ULEZ for the Thames? And other London water clean-up measures

If you planned to avoid Ultra-Low Emission Zone charges by getting to work via the River Thames, you might want to think again. Feasibility studies are underway about what the river authorities are dubbing a “RULEZ” – stands for River Ultra-Low Emission Zone – designed to better control emissions from inland vessels on the waterway.

The RULEZ was just one of a comprehensive set of clean-up measures outlined in a wide-ranging discussion at a meeting of the London Assembly’s environment committee last week, which looked at the health of the city’s water, as well as its potential for helping to reach net zero climate change targets.

But a RULEZ won’t be happening any time soon – it’s a “medium term” objective in the Port of London Authority’s air quality strategy – but committee members heard that the authority (PLA), a public trust with statutory powers over the 95 miles of the tidal Thames, has already converted its own fleet to low carbon and is running incentive schemes for other river users to reduce their emissions, while City Hall funding is helping to retrofit other vessels.

Last week, passenger operator Thames Clippers introduced the first of three hybrid high-speed passenger ferries to central London, carrying passengers between the Tower of London and Battersea Power Station piers with zero tailpipe emissions. And work is underway to deliver a fully-electric zero emission ferry between Canary Wharf and Rotherhithe in early 2025.

Green energy production is also on the agenda, PLA sustainability director Grace Rawnsley told Assembly members (AMs). The authority is exploring green tidal energy generation and water source heat pump technology, she said, though she added that the need to protect navigation on what is the UK’s busiest inland waterway, as well as safeguarding fish and eel populations, mean the potential for this is limited.

Thames Water interim joint chief executive Cathryn Ross told AMs there are greater opportunities from floating solar panels on the 19 square kilometres of reservoirs within the M25 and, in particular, by generating heat from London’s sewage. Ross said this has the potential to produce 10 terawatt hours of heat, representing 40 per cent of the output of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station underway in Somerset which could power some six million homes.

Ross described the capital’s sewage as “a tremendous untapped resource”. Yet it it also remains a significant problem, polluting the Thames and London’s other rivers through well-publicised storm overflows from overwhelmed sewers and treatment works. There is also the challenge of preventing “backing up” into homes, as well as misconnections to the sewer system and faults with the sewers themselves, the meeting heard.

Every river in London presently falls below legal standards, said Joe Pecorelli from London Zoo, which runs a number of restoration projects on the capital’s waterways. He also described surface water “flash” flooding as a major risk – another reason for sewage overflows into rivers and causing wider damage and disruption, exacerbated by the heavily built-up nature of much of Greater London.“We need a much more porous city,” said Pecorelli,

Ross added that sustainable drainage systems, or “SuDS” – nature-based drainage ranging from water butts and pavement “rain gardens” to ponds and reed beds – are increasingly important for water management in the city.

Thames Water’s 25-year drainage and wastewater management plan, launched earlier this year, has a target of installing 7,000 hectares-worth of SuDS in London, the equivalent of 50 Hyde Parks, Ross said. Londoners still keen on “paving over their front gardens and astroturfing”, often at a faster pace than SuDS could be established, need to get the message too, said committee chair Leonie Cooper.

The good news, the committee heard, is that the £4.6 billion Thames Tideway “super sewer”, designed to intercept the bulk of sewage overflow into the Thames along with sewage-related litter such as wet wipes, remained on track to be completed by 2025.

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