Swimmers fear Windermere’s toxic, polluted water: ‘We won’t be back’

OOn a sunny weekday morning, crowds are already pouring into Bowness-on-Windermere. The revelation this week that millions of liters of untreated sewage have been dumped into England’s largest lake is not deterring visitors, local businesses say. But it changes their behavior.

“On Tuesday my friend and I noticed that the water smelled bad. We normally only notice the smell and algae in the summer. But it’s already disgusting,” said Kayte Ashton, an open water swimmer and freelance data analyst who normally travels daily from nearby Kendal, 16 miles away. “When we got home, we heard about the leak on the news, and we won’t come back. When I swim, I never put my head under water. And when I get home, I can wash well and wash my swimming gear, because they are covered in brown gunk.”

The revelation that a telecom error led United Utilities to pump raw sewage into the middle of the lake has renewed attention to long-term health. Campaigners have highlighted the number of wastewater discharges into the lake catchment from overflow valves on the sewer network, known as storm overflows.

Nearly 9,000 hours of raw sewage flowed into Windermere last year

Nearly 9,000 hours of raw sewage flowed into Windermere last year

LORNE CAMPBELL/GUZELIAN

The Save Windermere group, run by Matt Staniek, 28, a zoologist, found that almost 9,000 hours of raw sewage entered the lake last year from seven United Utilities storm overflows. However, gaining control over precise data is made more difficult by the fact that 100 percent monitoring of overflows was only achieved last year.

One of the main pollutants in the lake’s two basins is phosphorus. In excessive amounts, the nutrient feeds the toxic blue-green algae blooms that have appeared in Windermere in recent summers. The algae not only affects Arctic char, considered by some fishermen to be Britain’s tastiest fish, but can also be harmful to dogs and swimmers.

“When it gets hot, I avoid Windermere because of the algae. I used to take my dog ​​with me, but now I wouldn’t bring him here,” says Matt Wightman, a swimmer who finds a swim relieves the stress of his job at a local children’s home. “I used to take the children from home, but I stopped because of the risk of pollution from the sewage they pump into the water.” Like Ashton, he was at Millerground, one of four seaside resorts in Windermere, all of which are rated as excellent by regulators.

Satellites are now being trained on the lake and compared with cell phone network data to try to understand how the annual influx of summer visitors affects phosphorus concentrations.

Matt Wightman used to take children from the house where he works to swim in the lake, but has stopped due to fears of pollution

Matt Wightman used to take children from the house where he works to swim in the lake, but has stopped due to fears of pollution

LORNE CAMPBELL/GUZELIAN

There are two main wastewater treatment plants of interest for phosphorus: one is at Ambleside, where the wastewater flows into the river that enters the northern part of Windermere. The other is Tower Wood, which flows directly into the southern basin.

Ben Surridge, a biogeochemist at Lancaster University, has been studying the lake for two years. His seventh study, conducted in February, found that 69 percent of sites around the coastline had phosphorus concentrations high enough to drop the water from good to moderate ecological status. Those levels are above what he believes is the limit needed to protect the lake.

However, he said they are not extreme. “There is little evidence in our data of extremely high total phosphorus concentrations in Windermere, despite some comments I have seen about phosphorus concentrations in the lake,” he said. The levels have remained largely the same since his studies began.

Windermere is notable for the length of time its water quality has been studied. A monitoring program testing the waters began in the late 1940s, led by the Freshwater Biological Association and driven by interest in the cause of the algae growth.

Blue-green algae blooms, which are toxic to wildlife, are worsened by pollutants such as phosphorus

Blue-green algae blooms, which are toxic to wildlife, are worsened by pollutants such as phosphorus

ALAMI

Samples were taken weekly from the deepest places in the lake. These were reduced to fortnightly in the 1980s due to budget cuts, with the work transferred to the Institute for Freshwater Ecology, which later became the UK Center for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), a charity. Historically, fish surveys were also conducted, but these have fallen victim to a funding crisis.

“The water quality is by no means terrible in Windermere. The nutrients are definitely lower than some of the historical levels we’ve seen,” said Ellie Mackay, an ecologist at the CEH. “The amount of algae we see in the lake now is not higher than historically, although it may be higher than we would like.”

Her numbers confirm that. Average phosphorus levels more than doubled in the Northern Basin, and tripled in the Southern Basin, between the 1950s and 2010. However, they peaked in the 1980s and have declined since. A similar picture applies to another pollutant, namely nitrates. In both basins they increased by about 40 percent over the same period, but peaked in the 1990s.

Geoffrey Waudby takes his spaniel from Hull to swim in the lake

Geoffrey Waudby takes his spaniel from Hull to swim in the lake

LORNE CAMPBELL/GUZELIAN

However, there are two trends that have clearly deteriorated. Water surface temperatures have risen by just over 1 degree Celsius in both basins since the 1950s. That’s bad news for the Charr, which depends on cool water. At the same time, oxygen concentrations have decreased by 24 percent in the northern basin and by 43 percent in the southern basin. In some places they are above the level the Charr can tolerate. “What concerns me is the declining oxygen levels we are seeing and the effect this is having on the availability of habitat for fish,” says Mackay.

She thinks the gap between long-term improvements and campaigners’ warnings of a sewage “time bomb” and lake “poisoning” are partly due to the fact that more data is now publicly available. “I think a lot of the campaigns have really picked up because they started publishing the CSO [storm overflow] facts. People have become more aware of what is happening in their environment,” she says.

Mackay said she would swim in the lake and has done so in the past. “You have to assess the risks yourself. There are many risks associated with open water swimming,” she said. She is not the only one who is not deterred. Geoffrey Waudby, a 53-year-old civil servant from Hull, was on his third visit this year. His Springer Spaniel loves swimming in the lakes. “I only let him in if there are no algae. All this fuss about the sewerage doesn’t stop me from coming here. I’ve been coming since I was four. I like this place. But the water company shouldn’t be doing what it’s doing,” he said.

Much of the improvement since the 1980s and 1990s has come from phosphorus removal equipment added to sewage treatment plants to comply with environmental laws, Mackay and Surridge said. United Utilities, which says the pollution comes from a number of sources including agriculture, has spent £75 million in the area since 2010.

An emerging question is whether nutrient pollution levels may need to go lower than previously thought to stop the algae blooms, because the water has warmed. “Bacterial blooms are likely to become more common at the same nutrient levels and with an increase in temperature,” Surridge said. “The point about the temperature increase is that, in terms of nutrient concentrations, we probably need to go lower if we want to achieve the same results in terms of algal blooms that we did 60 or 70 years ago.” Staniek said: “There have been improvements, but not enough in a changed climate.”

Surridge said it was crucial to provide a clear picture of the lake. “We are not saying that everything is rosy because they are better than they were in the 1990s. But if you want to bring people from the community and the watershed with us, I think we need to start speaking clearly about where we actually stand,” he said.

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