The fast-flowing River Kent, which passes through parts of the Lake District National Park and discharges into Morecambe Bay, is both a national Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and an international Special Area of Conservation (SAC), due to the presence of rare species including the white-clawed crayfish and freshwater pearl mussels.
Local campaigners hoped to get it awarded designated bathing status, but a survey by 100 trained citizen scientists found the river water contained high levels of excreta.
Pollution in the River Kent
The Clean River Kent Campaign (CRKC) was established in Autumn 2021 as a voluntary coalition of communities living along the River Kent, Cumbria. Its aim is to keep the River Kent clean for water-based recreation and to protect wildlife and ecology.
CRKC released a report last week, showing the results of water quality monitoring between February and September 2022, at six locations from Staveley to Sedgwick, south of Kendal.
At all six locations, the quality of the river water was assessed as ‘poor’ (the worst category) due to high levels of faecal bacterial pathogens. Results were particularly bad at the test site immediately downstream of Staveley Wastewater Treatment Works.
The river water was tested for Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Enterococcus species (both are types of faecal bacteria) in an accredited laboratory. The report concludes:
“The results at Beckmickle Ing, just downstream of Staveley Wastewater Treatment Works (WwTW), were particularly worrying. Despite numerous requests, United Utilities (which runs the WwTW) has been unable to provide a full dataset on the performance of this WwTW in terms of the frequency and duration of spills.”
This is the first time that such information has been made available for the River Kent. It signals risks to human health and serious concerns for ecology and wildlife.
Faecal bacteria in river water used for swimming
CRKC has applied for bathing water status for a stretch of the River Kent to ensure regular water quality monitoring by the Environment Agency (EA). However, all six survey sites are used regularly for swimming, water sports – including world-class kayaking – angling and other recreation.
“The data collected by CRKC and the Parish Council doesn’t surprise me. For years, due to underinvestment in infrastructure, residents in Staveley have suffered from raw sewage regularly overflowing onto their streets as well as into the river.
“A Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request by local people in 2021 disclosed there had been an ‘emergency’ discharge of untreated effluent 1,000 times during 2019 to 2021 directly into the River Kent from the Staveley sewage treatment works – an average of once a day. These new results should be used to hold the responsible polluters to account.” – Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale
Lake District rivers in poor condition
Dr Gill Notman, senior lecturer in marine and freshwater conservation, Institute of Science & Environment, University of Cumbria said:
“Only 14% of UK rivers are rated ‘good’ by the EU, and in the Lake District National Park only 4% of SSSI rivers are in favourable condition. We need to take urgent action to stop the on-going decline of our precious resources by unacceptable levels of pollution from various sources including wastewater treatment works, agriculture and septic tanks.”
Carole Wood (CRKC member and Kendal resident) said: “The River Kent is a unique river that has almost every designation possible – it is a national SSSI and an international SAC due to the presence of certain species, including white-clawed crayfish, bullhead and freshwater pearl mussel.”
She pointed out the river runs through the Lake District National Park which was inscribed in 2018 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the cultural landscape category.
Sewage discharge into the River Kent
Since 25 February 2022, 138 observations have been made at the riverside location of the Staveley ‘dump pipe’. Over half (54%) of these recorded that the ‘dump pipe’ was discharging, most frequently during wet autumn weather.
Arthur Capstick, Staveley parish councillor and sewage group lead said:
“The Parish Council continues to be in discussions with United Utilities about the adequacy of the sewage treatment works but has not yet received any guarantee of improvement. From regular observations made this year by local volunteers on behalf of the Parish Council, it is now clear that untreated or partly treated sewage is repeatedly discharged from the site directly into the River Kent.”
Bathing water status
In October 2022, the Clean River Kent Campaign applied to DEFRA for bathing water status at a site in Staveley above the treatment works. So far only two rivers in England have this – the Wharfe at Ilkley and the Thames near Oxford – compared to 573 rivers in France.
Although the River Kent is used for leisure activities, there is no current requirement on either United Utilities or the EA to test for faecal bacteria, unless and until DEFRA designates the stretch of river as having bathing water status. If the application is successful, the EA will then be required to conduct regular bacterial monitoring, which will provide information for the local community about pollution levels.
A United Utilities spokesperson said:
“We welcome the research done by CRKG and we support their bid for a site on the river to be designated as an official bathing water. Our treatment works at Staveley operates according to its environmental permit, however it is not required to remove bacteria.
“We work closely with the South Cumbria Rivers Trust, which has produced a report looking at all the factors that affect the quality of the River Kent. While wastewater is a factor, grazing animals, mining and private septic tanks are all sources of pollution which have an impact along the river.
“We are committed to working in partnership with others across the whole river catchment to help improve river water quality.”
An EA spokesperson said:
“We welcome the data gathered by these investigations to help inform plans moving forward and to ensure that our waters are fit for fish, wildlife and for people to enjoy.
“The EA will continue to work with the water company and others in the community to reduce potential pollution and plans to meet with the campaign group in the New Year.”
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