Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent
Thu, 25 August 2022 at 12:03 pm
Sewage pollution harming wildlife and risking human health on Windermere is the “epitome” of the problem facing the country’s rivers and lakes, a campaigner has said.
Matt Staniek has been raising the alarm about the “dying” lake in the Lake District, which has seen toxic algal blooms and wildlife vanishing due, he says, to pollution from sewage treatment works and septic tanks.
He is calling for protected status for Windermere, more investment from water company United Utilities to tackle the problem, and regulation and funding to curb leaks from individual septic tanks in the catchment.
Mr Staniek said birds such as dippers and kingfishers are disappearing from the river flowing into the head of the lake in the national park and World Heritage Site, while Atlantic salmon and other fish are also in decline.
He has had the algal blooms in the lake tested, revealing blue-green algae at levels well above Environment Agency and World Health Organisation warning threshold levels for risks to public health and which he claimed are as “toxic as cobra venom”.
Phosphate nutrients from sewage, released through storm drain overflows and private septic tanks, and from treated effluent and farming, prompts an increase in algae which reduces oxygen in the water and harms or kills wildlife.
Toxins from the algae can be harmful to human health – and the problem will worsen with climate change as the lake warms and the catchment is increasingly at risk of extremes such as heatwaves and drought.
Untreated sewage is also harmful to human health.
Water companies and big industrial farming units have come under increasing fire for pollution in rivers, lakes and coastal waters, with only 14% of rivers in England considered to be in good ecological status.
Mr Staniek said: “Windermere is the epitome of this problem. If the Government is failing Windermere, imagine what’s happening in your local river.
“This isn’t just restricted to Windermere within the national park, Coniston Water is under the same threat, Derwent Water is under the same threat.
“It’s just going to get worse and worse because no-one is addressing the issue,” he said, warning it would worsen to the point someone dies from poor water quality.
He said Windermere is suffering from high nutrient levels because of human activities in the catchment and the extent and frequency of algal blooms are due to climate change.
“It’s exacerbating the fundamental issue that we have, which is the fact that Windermere is dying, and climate change is what’s going to tip this ecosystem over the edge.”
The Love Windermere partnership was formed in July, led by the Environment Agency and with organisations including United Utilities, the Lake District National Park Authority, National Trust, National Farmers’ Union and The Freshwater Biological Association, to develop a science-based plan for protecting the lake.
A spokesperson for the partnership said: “The lake is certainly not dying.
“It is however affected by a number of complex challenges including the impact of more extreme weather caused by climate change, an excess of nutrients and seasonal variations of the tourist population.
“We are committed to developing the most effective solutions to maintain and improve water quality in the lake, including collating more scientific evidence to better understand the particular pressures on Windermere to allow us to target more effectively our interventions.”
Around 40% of the phosphate going into the lake is from treated effluent and sewer overflows from United Utilities infrastructure, 30% from agriculture, and 30% from private septic tanks and runoff from highways.
But while Mr Staniek says many farmers are taking steps to improve the environment, he is critical of the action by local authorities, United Utilities, government agencies and other organisations.
“Fundamentally, I just don’t think they’re doing enough, and I don’t think they have done enough to ensure that we have a lake in front of us that’s adapted towards climate change.”
He has a petition calling for Windermere to be declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), which would require developments in the area to offset their nutrient input.
Legislation is also needed from the Government to ensure that septic tanks are properly maintained and have sufficient capacity, and funding is needed to support people to ensure their private sewage facilities are in working order.
Mr Staniek even suggests the millions of visitors to the national park should be asked to pay a small admission fee to help provide the funding.
The Government must also fund the Environment Agency to monitor septic tanks and United Utilities must invest more of its profits into upgrading infrastructure year on year and monitoring its sites, he said.
A United Utilities spokesperson said: “We are pleased to be part of the Love Windermere partnership which is taking a science-based approach to better understand the status of water quality in the lake, and prioritising action to tackle the most pressing areas of impact first.
“For our own part, we have recently completed a multimillion-pound infrastructure upgrade project, and the wastewater systems around Windermere now operate to the highest possible standards.”
Some £40 million has been invested to reduce phosphate levels from its treatment works and spills from operations, the company said.