The Thames was selected out of hundreds of rivers across every continent as the winner of this year’s International Theiss River Prize; an accolade celebrating outstanding achievements in river management and restoration.

The award marks a sea-change in the waterway’s fortunes, after it was declared a biologically dead river in the 1950’s.

Through heavy investment, stringent pollution controls and high-profile conservation projects though, the Thames has now emerged from its murky past as a vibrant, thriving river; teeming with over 120 different species of fish – including returning salmon and sea trout populations.

Alastair Driver, the Environment Agency’s national conservation manager, said it had taken “thousands of people many decades” to restore the Thames to its present standard but that its continued recovery remains “fragile”.

“In the last 150 years the Thames has been to hell and back,” said Mr Driver. “Tighter regulation of polluting industries and our work with farmers, businesses and water companies to reduce pollution and improve water quality, have all helped to make the Thames a living river once again.

“But the recovery is fragile, and under increasing pressure from a growing population, ageing infrastructure and climate change.

Through innovative projects such as the Thames Tideway tunnels and the London Rivers Action Plan, we and all of the people and organisations we work with are proving that we are tackling these challenges head on to ensure that the Thames remains an iconic river for many centuries to come.”

London’s renowned waterway was up against China’s world-famous Yellow River; the Hattah Lakes in Australia and Japan’s Smirnykh Rivers Partnership in the competition’s finals, but emerged victorious thanks to a robust submission from the Environment Agency (EA).

The EA’s entry detailed numerous projects the EA are working on to further improve the quality of the Thames and its tributaries. These included restoration programmes such as the ongoing Jubilee River Flood Alleviation Scheme – which has created a new 11km stretch of naturalistic river and habitats between Maidenhead and Windsor.

While providing flood protection to over 5,500 homes – and more practical schemes, such as the £3.6bn London Tideway Tunnels project, which is working to tackle the 39million tonnes of storm sewer overflows that enter the tidal Thames every year.

Richard Aylard, Thames Water’s external affairs and sustainability director, echoed the EA’s comments that great achievements have been made but more must still be done.

He said: “Major investment at our sewage treatment works, paid for by our customers through their water bills, has greatly accelerated the cleanup of the River Thames.

“Biologically dead for many years, there is now a much greater diversity of wildlife in the river. But we need to maintain this progress in the face of population growth and climate change, and not slip back.

“Delivering our London Tideway Improvements programme is now essential to tackle the increasingly frequent overflows of sewage into the river.”

The EA has pledged that the $350,000 AUD (Australian Dollars) prize money will go to the Thames Rivers Restoration Trust.

Sam Plester

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