Murky waters

Renewed calls for a freshwater clean-up

Lake Windemere is the largest natural lake in England, more than eleven miles in length and, at its widest, nearly a mile across. Its waters glisten in an area of outstanding natural beauty, one of the jewels in the crown of the Lake District, which since 2017 has been designated a World Heritage Site. A haven for wildlife, the lake remains one of the country’s most popular holiday destinations, with a heritage steam railway, numerous water activities and steamer cruises, and the breathtaking scenery that has inspired, among others, Wordsworth, Oscar Wilde and Arthur Ransome, whose much-loved Swallows and Amazons has long been a children’s classic. But not all is well at Windemere, as there is the huge and controversial issue of increasing quantities of raw sewage being pumped, or allowed to leak, into the water.

In 2020, the sewage treatment plant at Ambleside poured raw sewage into the lake via the river Rothay for more than 1,700 hours during the year, which is equivalent to 71 days out of 365. Outdated septic tanks from lakeside houses, holiday homes and caravans, as well as drain-off from agricultural land, also released sewage into the lake. Raw sewage adds phosphorous to the water, depleting oxygen levels and encouraging the growth of blue-green algae. As a result, growing numbers of dead fish and invertebrates are being recorded and there are grave concerns that the lake could become “ecologically dead.”

Raw sewage spewing from the Rothay into Lake Windemere is not an isolated case, but an example of the way in which many of our rivers and waterways, large and small, are being treated, or mistreated. Water companies are meant to process raw sewage and release safe water into our rivers. However, it is not unlawful for the companies to release some untreated sewage. In special circumstances, after storms or unexpectedly heavy rainfall, when the amount of raw sewage coming into treatment plants exceeds capacity, companies are permitted to release the excess into rivers to avoid the system becoming overwhelmed. These amounts are supposed to be strictly monitored and reported to the Environment Agency. But there are claims that some companies are not always squeaky clean in their reporting. Examples of monitoring-equipment failures are not uncommon, leading to data reported as “unavailable”, not only for the period of the breakdown, but sometimes for an entire year.

The whole system has become something of a grey and murky area, not unlike the effluent itself. The Environmental Agency says it does not have evidence of companies deliberately manipulating the data they provide, but does see gaps in that data and is looking to tighten and extend regulations. Environmental campaigners have long been concerned for the health, safety and sustainability of our waterways and the nearby wildlife, now under significant threat. They call for complete transparency from water companies and say a clean-up of the industry is vital. If the example of Lake Windermere is typical, they appear to be right.

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