What's really made Windermere look like a sewer, asks ROBERT HARDMAN

What’s really made glorious Windermere look like a sewer? As Britain’s most iconic lake turns green thanks to toxic algae, locals are in a stink over the true culprit so… is it hot weather, home owners or water bosses, asks ROBERT HARDMAN

There can surely be few better places to grow up than here on the edge of England’s biggest lake. Matt Staniek remembers long, happy summer days sploshing around on the National Trust beach where I am standing at Millerground, one of the prettiest public bathing areas on the 24-mile circumference of Lake Windermere.

Ed and George Sandys have fond memories of paddling and swimming on the opposite side of the lake, along the western shoreline where their family have lived for centuries.

George remembers the day when everyone had to go treasure-hunting in the shallows after his grandfather’s signet ring fell into the water. Back then, there was no problem seeing the bottom. Not so today.

We are not talking about that long ago. Matt is only 26, George is 37 and Ed is 38.

Over the past three months, great stretches have been turning alarming shades of green as an algae infestation has blossomed

Yet you won’t find any of them in Windermere this weekend, however scorching the Bank Holiday sunshine. Ed hasn’t been in all year. Matt won’t let his dog anywhere near the lake.

Ask any locals in these parts if they can remember Windermere looking quite as peculiar as it has of late and most will say not.

Over the past three months, great stretches have been turning alarming shades of green as an algae infestation has blossomed due to a toxic cocktail of hot weather, a shrinking water supply and unspecified quantities of ‘nutrients’ — notably sewage. The more all these ingredients multiply, the less oxygen there is left in the lake for fish and wildlife.

Known as blue-green algae, the phenomenon — which can cause serious harm to humans and kill animals — is nothing new. However, no one can recall an outbreak on this scale. And no one is denying that it is man-made.

Britain’s coastal resorts may be retching at the torrents of effluent cascading out of the nearest overspill pipe. At least that will eventually head out to sea. Here, in a slow-moving lake where it can take a drop of water nine months to get from one end to the other, any nasty stuff is not going anywhere fast.

Viewed from in, on, or under the waters of Windermere, something is clearly not right. Surveyed from the surrounding hillsides, from aircraft or, this week, from a Daily Mail drone, the situation is even more pronounced. Indeed, it has even been spotted from Space. What is so frustrating for many is that these algal ‘blooms’ can materialise in a matter of minutes, then disappear if there is a breeze. Except they haven’t really gone away.

Now, thanks to the effects of climate change, an uneasy situation is reaching a tipping point.

‘People are realising that we may have to take a bit of short-term pain to stop a long-term disaster — which is what will happen if we leave this lake to die,’ says Matt, a local-born zoologist

‘People are realising that we may have to take a bit of short-term pain to stop a long-term disaster — which is what will happen if we leave this lake to die,’ says Matt, a local-born zoologist who is now dedicating all his time (and his life’s savings) to highlighting the plight of his beloved Windermere.

One might imagine he would invoke the wrath of his neighbours in an area that is almost wholly dependent on tourism.

Yet I find most people very supportive of what he is doing — from the local Liberal Democrat MP, councillors and a Tory peer to people like Peter Kelly.

Peter runs a very popular Ambleside business called Swim The Lakes, organising guided swims, river swims, night swims and even warm-ups for cross-Channel swimmers, not to mention a busy trade in wetsuits. Given the nature of his business, you might expect him to play down the situation but he is commendably frank.

‘I regularly paddle the length of the lake,’ he says. ‘Some of it can look crystal clear and some of it’s a swamp. We’ve always had algae but now you get these concentrated blooms like never before — in some places it smells like a sewer. I always say to people, “If it’s minging, don’t swim in it”.’

This very day, Peter has cancelled a one-mile guided swim from Millerground, only the second time he has ever called off an outing. He took the decision because of fresh algae reports, even though his own water-testing kit showed that stretch of the lake to be safe.

‘I just decided it wasn’t worth the risk,’ he says, pointing to the fact that there are umpteen other beautiful stretches of clear, whiff-free water in nearby lakes. So in this case, he took his party to nearby Rydal Water.

His solution to the problem? ‘Well, we can’t do much about rising temperatures but we can certainly do something about what we put in the water,’ he says.

Many locals claim United Utilities cannot cope with the millions of tourists who descend all year round

Like pretty much everyone round here, he believes the main responsibility lies with United Utilities, the water provider for the North West of England. Valued at £7.4 billion, it is Britain’s biggest water company, with salaries and bonuses to match (chief executive Steve Mogford took home £3 million last year). Many locals claim United cannot cope with the millions of tourists who descend all year round.

In 2021, says the Environment Agency, United discharged ‘storm’ spills into the Windermere catchment for 6,992 hours (down from 7,146 in 2020).

At Ambleside Library, I meet the local Lib Dem MP, Tim Farron, former party leader, doing the rounds across his huge constituency, Westmorland and Lonsdale. ‘There is no doubt that climate change and the hot weather are to blame,’ he says. ‘There are also things that we can all do but there are two main issues.

‘One is the number of unregulated septic tanks leaking into the lake. But the main one, in my view, is United Utilities.

‘The fact that even a moderately heavy rainfall can just overwhelm the system and that they are legally allowed these overflow “events” needs to be addressed. They need to be instructed to install more storage tanks.’

Although the Environment Agency is charged with monitoring the situation, Mr Farron argues that its hands are tied legally and by a lack of resources. In particular, he would like to see it given the powers to regulate septic tanks.

Official figures show there are about 1,900 of these not connected to the main sewage system.

United Utilities clearly feels demonised. It points out that its treated effluent is of the highest quality since a £40 million upgrade to a system which, it says, can meet population growth up to 2035. But there is no monitoring of the contents of any overspill.

Curiously, perhaps, it will not comment on the water quality in the lake, saying this is a matter for others, or respond to ‘hearsay and conjecture’. It is, however, committed to a new ‘Love Windermere’ alliance, led by the Environment Agency, to determine what needs to be done.

‘Building on our own record levels of investment,’ says a company statement to the Mail, ‘we are working with other agencies through the Love Windermere partnership on a science-based plan that will prioritise action that everyone who impacts the lake can take.’

The company recently issued a Press release blaming local cafes for six sewer blockages caused by fat deposits in drains. A United spokesman also points out that agricultural run-off from farms has a great deal to answer for.

Tim Farron is sceptical. ‘Farming is far less of a problem than it was and the landowners are a pretty responsible lot,’ he says.

The Sandys family, who are responsible for 5,000 acres along five miles of Windermere shoreline, closed the estate’s last midden (slurry pit) ten years ago.

Ed Sandys says the estate has modern septic tanks for its cottages, that fields are only let for seasonal grazing and that it is involved in a rewilding project. He points to a recent incident on Cunsey Beck, a river running down to the lake through his land. One day, he found a large number of dead fish and eels. ‘I walked back up the river and there was this filth streaming out of a pipe. Upstream of the pipe, the water was fine. We followed the line of the pipe back, via manhole covers, to the nearby sewage works.’

A United Utilities spokesman, however, is adamant that all its equipment was working on that day, that the pollution was nothing to do with its operations and that I should seek someone else to blame. George Sandys, meanwhile, asks why, shortly after the incident, United Utilities suddenly installed a brand new generator at the plant in question. United says this was just a coincidence.

The Sandys family point out that South Cumbria Rivers Trust tested the water by the outfall and that the results, together with the smell, strongly indicated the presence of raw sewage.

Dr Roger Sweeting, the chairman of the trust and a fellow of the Freshwater Biological Association, says the trust was then contacted by United Utilities and asked to withdraw any suggestion that sewage from the pipe was to blame. The Environment Agency is conducting an investigation and has yet to comment.

As Dr Sweeting tells me this is merely a tiny example of a huge problem for which everyone must take responsibility.

‘United have actually done some very good work and are exploring a new technique for removing a lot of phosphates from their output,’ he says. ‘As soon as anything goes wrong, people hit on them. You have to ask where duties to water quality meet duties to shareholders — but you’ve also got to ask all those people with septic tanks. Instead of wagging too many fingers or “Do this” campaigns like “Love Windermere”, we need a proper 20-year water quality plan.’

The trust’s president, Lord Cavendish, a local landowner, has observed a collapse in fish stocks on the River Leven, which flows from the southern end of the lake through his land. He accepts that multiple factors are to blame, not least septic tanks and the weakness of the Environment Agency.

‘I have been in government and served on quangos and I can see that this one is not doing its job,’ says the Tory peer. Although ennobled by Margaret Thatcher, he is frank: ‘I am afraid water privatisation has not been a success.’

The agency tells me it has spent £700,000 over the past decade on improving the water quality of Windermere, which it calls ‘a national asset’.

Matt Staniek takes me on a tour of his home patch. Up beyond any water outfall pipes, the water is pristine in Great Langdale Beck. We descend along the River Rothay below Ambleside.

Matt points to the relatively clear riverbed above the sewage works and the murkier depths immediately below it.

A little farther downstream, the river meets the lake. Here, viewed from our drone, we see a dark brown spearhead hitting an equally unappetising expanse of grey-green algae. United Utilities points out that its plant is only putting in treated effluent at this point and that it is certainly not the only business connected to the river. It points to discharge from the adjacent industrial estate.

On the nearby beach, there are small signs warning people about blue-green algae and the risk of skin rashes, diarrhoea and vomiting in humans, plus the risk of death for pets and livestock.

Shaun Evans-Peacock, 32, from Sunderland, is emerging from a quick dip. The water is not looking too bad, although there are wisps of algae. He hasn’t seen the signs but, after we point them out, he says he will take a shower.

I meet a woman whose 11-year-old daughter is paddling in the shallows. She has seen the signs and so has not brought the family dog. However, her daughter has insisted on going in, having promised not to swallow any water.

Farther out, I spot a flotilla of paddleboarders, many of whom keep falling in. This weekend, thousands like them will be in the water. Most will be fine, for much of this algae is harmless. And most of the Lake District is as clean and enchanting as ever.

Nonetheless, something is badly wrong on the greatest lake of them all. Beatrix Potter set her magical stories in the fields above Windermere. Arthur Ransome based many of his children’s classics on adventures in these waters.

If nothing is done soon, however, it is going to be a case of Swallows and Enemas.

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