Zoologist says sewage dumped in Windermere is root of UK's problem

‘If Government is failing Windermere, imagine what’s happening in your river’: Zoologist campaigning to stop sewage being dumped into Lake District lake says issue is ‘epitome’ of problem facing all of UK’s waterways

  • Windermere is a dumping ground for sewage in UNESCO-protected Lake District
  • Conservationist call for tougher restrictions to protect Britain’s rural water spots
  • Hot weather and sewage spills have seen an explosion in ‘toxic’ blue-green algae
  • Testing revealed the blooms are in such high concentration they could kill dogs 
  • Sewage was pumped into British waters for nine million hours over last six years 

A zoologist campaigning for Lake Windermere to be granted extra environmental protections has warned the rise in sewage being dumped there is the ‘epitome’ of the problems facing all of Britain’s waterways. 

Matt Staniek, a 26-year-old conservationist, has raised the alarm over toxic algal blooms and vanishing wildlife at the ‘dying’ UNESCO-protected beauty spot in the Lake District.

Mr Staniek claims England’s largest lake is on the brink of annihilation, owing to sewage works pollution, local agriculture and the near 2,000 private septic tanks that line the iconic rural hotspot. 

He is now calling for Windermere to be granted protected scientific status, fresh investment from water firm United Utilities to tackle the dumping of sewage there, and more regulation to curb leaks in the catchment.

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 added.

It comes as it was revealed water companies have spent more than nine million hours pumping raw sewage into Britain’s seas and rivers since 2016.

The data – released by the Labour party – shows that since 2016, raw sewage has been released into the UK’s seas and rivers for a total of 9,427,355 hours.

It also shows that there has been a 2,553 per cent increase in the number of monitored discharge hours between 2016 and 2021.

In 2016, the Environment Agency recorded 100,533 hours’ worth of spills. By 2021, that figure had rocketed to 2,667,452.

Matt Staniek, a 26-year-old conservationist claims his black Labrador Bo fell ill after swimming in the UNESCO protected Lake Windermere

Mr Staniek says England’s largest lake is on the brink of ecological annihilation and warned the rise in sewage being dumped there is the ‘epitome’ of the problems facing all of Britain’s waterways

Raw sewage was pumped into the lake for 1,719 hours in 2020 – while an interactive map from the River Trust shows at least seven points where waste was discharged into the water last year

Campaigners have warned the future of historic Lake Windermere, which is credited as being the inspiration behind works from Oscar Wilde and William Wordsworth, remains bleak despite repeated calls to protect it. 

Earlier this summer wild water swimmers told MailOnline how they fell ill and had to take time off work after they took a dip in the storied lake’s waters.

Mr Staniek also said that an increase in the number of toxic blue-green algae blooms in the water could spell ecological disaster for Lake Windermere.

The blooms can be fatal to animals and have a particularly dire impact on local wildlife, most notably fish. 

Water extracted from areas showing blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, may contain high nitrates which can cause stomach cancer and blue baby syndrome. 

It comes after raw sewage was pumped into the lake for 1,719 hours in 2020 – while an interactive map from the River Trust shows at least seven points where waste was discharged into the water last year. 

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.

Raw sewage was pumped into Lake Windermere for 1,719 hours in 2020. [stock image of sewage pipe]

An interactive map from the River Trust shows at least seven points where waste was discharged into Lake Windermere last year

Water safety campaigners say this large fish washed up dead by the path at Lake Windermere due to the increased presence of ‘toxic’ blue-green algae blooms

Water companies and big industrial farming units have come under increasing fire for pollution levels 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 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.’

What are toxic blue-green algae blooms?

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are an ancient class of organisms that create the blooms are present nearly everywhere water is found, but thrive in warm, still bodies like lakes and ponds.

It includes species which produce some of the most powerful toxins known to man, and their impact on humans is only partially understood.

The incidence of freshwater harmful algal blooms (FHABs) has surged in recent years, with some scientists attributing the increase to climate change.

Blue-green algae blooms are capable of producing several different toxins

Algae is capable of producing several different toxins. People may be exposed to these toxins through contact with the skin (e.g. when swimming), through inhalation (e.g. when motorboating or water skiing), or by swallowing contaminated water.

These toxins can cause skin rashes, vomiting, stomach pains, a fever and headaches.

Occasionally, they can cause more serious illness such as liver and brain damage.

Not all blue-green algae blooms and scums are toxic but it is not possible to tell from appearance and so it’s best to assume they are harmful and take precautions. 

Children are at greater risk than adults of developing problems because of their comparative lower body weight,

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.’

Private testing revealed that the algae (pictured) is in such high concentrations it could kill dogs. The Environment Agency refused to test the algae unless there were reports of ‘illness’

Hot weather and sewage spills have seen an explosion in blue-green algae blooms in England’s largest lake

Some £40 million has been invested to reduce phosphate levels from its treatment works and spills from operations, the company said.

It comes as a top ecologist warned that algae in Windermere could be as toxic as cobra venom to swimmers and pets.

Private testing, shared exclusively with the MoS, reveals that the blue-green algae is in such high concentrations it could kill dogs and possibly humans.

Dr Nick Everall, director of Aquascience Consultancy Ltd, which conducted the testing, said the samples taken ‘well exceeded’ EA and World Health Organisation warning levels.

‘On a weight-for-weight basis the neuro and hepatotoxins potentially produced are as toxic as cobra venom,’ he said.

Dr Everall branded the Environment Agency ‘irresponsible’ for not conducting its own testing to establish the toxicity levels.

The EA insisted it was the landowners’ responsibility to display signs warning swimmers and pet owners.

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