Windermere is England’s largest lake and one of its most popular tourist attractions. There are therefore many pressures on its delicate ecosystem. The North West’s water company, United Utilities, has a critical role in managing Windermere’s water quality. It was recently accused by the BBC of “marking its own homework” when making assessments of environmental performance. North West citizens are getting involved in monitoring water quality.
How clean is Windermere?
There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that Windermere is polluted. The Cumbria Wildlife Trust believes that algal blooms seem to be more common, and nutrient levels in the lake are much higher than would be expected in an upland, rocky area with shallow soils. While there are many sources of pollution, the majority comes from domestic waste water, whether from normal operation of waste water treatment plants, or overflows from other parts of the system. It follows therefore, that North West based water company United Utilities is the number one influence on the health of this iconic natural asset.
According to the most recent Environment Agency report, United Utilities is one of the best performing of England’s nine water companies. So it should be the ideal custodian of the lake. In 2022 United Utilities received 3 stars for its environmental performance, beaten only by Severn Trent. The maximum is 4 stars, which United Utilities achieved in 2021.
However, the star rating is based only on pollution incidents which are outside normal operations – such as a blocked sewer or equipment failure at a treatment works. The very frequent discharges into water courses because of storm overflows are treated as normal permitted actions and are not included in the Environment Agency assessment: North West Bylines has previously demonstrated that United Utilities is really among the worst offenders in storm overflows and that it did not significantly improve between 2021 and 2022.
The significance of the recent BBC Panorama programme The Water Pollution Cover-up is that the BBC has demonstrated that the relatively good three star environmental assessment is not based on independent measurements, but on United Utilities’ own judgement of the impact of their pollution events.
It appears that each incident is assessed on a scale from 1 (most serious) to 4. Category 4 incidents have no environmental impact and are excluded from the Environment Agency numbers. The BBC found 60 cases where the category of incident had been changed to 4 during the United Utilities internal investigation. This would obviously have a major impact on the result.
Is the Environment Agency fit for purpose?
Perhaps the most surprising revelation in the Panorama programme is that the Environment Agency is almost never involved in these assessments. It rarely uses its own measurements and must take the water companies’ reports at face value. One factor is that Environment Agency funding has been slashed by 50% over the past decade, meaning the staff there have far fewer resources for the sort of monitoring and enforcement work that many people probably expect them to be doing. An independent report concluded that it did not properly investigate a serious pollution incident in Cunsey Beck in 2022 (this also features in the BBC Panorama programme).
Caroline Lucas has called for a criminal investigation into the BBC reports:
In fact the Environment Agency is already “conducting its largest ever criminal investigation into potential widespread breaches of environmental permit conditions at wastewater treatment works by all water and sewerage companies”. It’s not known whether this investigation relates to the behaviour at United Utilities uncovered by the BBC. But all this brings into question how much we really know about the condition of our waterways and whether the present set up can protect water quality.
The very fact that a criminal investigation is underway suggests that the Environment Agency has allowed the water companies too much leeway. It would be better if processes were continually monitored and incrementally improved.
Citizen scientists monitor Windermere water quality
Windermere is an iconic North West landmark and naturally gets a lot of attention from parties with an interest in environmental health. As a result, there are independent sources of information about water quality here, that are lacking in the rest of the region.
The Lake District National Park is involved with many other agencies (including United Utilities) in a project called ‘Love Windermere’ which aims to deal with many of the issues causing pollution in the lake. As the project’s website states:
“The Love Windermere partnership launched in July 2022. It’s the biggest ever cooperation of sectors to tackle challenges in the lake. The partnership is developing a science-based plan to set out a road map for environmental protection that could be replicated across the UK.”
Among the initiatives being run is the citizen scientist programme known as The Big Windermere Survey. A collaboration between the University of Lancaster, the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA) and more than 100 volunteers, it aims to provide an independent and regularly updated measure of the lake’s water quality, measuring nutrient and bacterial concentrations in multiple locations. In time this will provide a comprehensive picture of the health of Windermere. Data are available since spring 2022 and can be viewed online. The FBA has undertaken work of this nature over many years, and this allows an assessment of long-term changes.
Other campaign groups are fighting hard for the future of Windermere, such as Save Windermere which is running a series of initiatives to increase monitoring of the lake and its surroundings as well as lobbying for reform.
What does Windermere tell us about the water industry?
United Utilities has made significant recent investments in Windermere waste water treatment plants and in reducing storm overflows. This is welcome, and the work being done by the Big Windermere Survey will eventually reveal whether it is enough.
The BBC revelations about the weak Environment Agency involvement with pollution monitoring raise serious questions about what is happening across the rest of the North West, where the level of attention and public scrutiny is much lower and there is no equivalent measurement of water quality. Ominously, the BBC Panorama programme referenced several incidents across the region: Windermere is not an outlier.
While there are huge issues with the structure of the water industry, which can only be addressed by national government, there is clearly scope for private citizens to become involved in keeping a close eye on local water quality, as this will drive improvement in time.