Saving Windermere from sewage

  • Contributor information: CNP

Save Windermere sign

(Image: Stop the sewage sign a Hawkshead Pumping Station)

August 2023

We find ourselves at a point in time where our awareness of sewage pollution has never been higher. We know there’s sewage in our sea, in our rivers and our lakes. Findings from a report from Greenpeace that came out just last week showed a whopping 300,000+ hours of sewage spills hit England and Wales’ most protected habitats last year – that’s the same as watching the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy 26,239 times.

The main culprit? Water companies. Water companies are legally allowed to discharge untreated wastewater through sewer overflows during periods of heavy rain, but there are countless examples of this happening routinely. Our outdated and underinvested infrastructure can’t cope with an increasing population, urbanisation, and climate change, and although companies are regularly hit with fines there is little incentive to clean up their acts when shareholder handouts are £2bn a year on average for English water companies.

Some of the worst hit places are popular tourist destinations and Protected Landscapes including Lake Windermere. Lake Windermere is England’s largest lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and situated in the Lake District National Park, but today Lake Windermere is dying. In 2022 alone there were 5,904 hours of spills into the Windermere catchment and during the summer the lake saw one of its most severe algal blooms to date turning parts of the lake soupy green.

The situation may seem dire, but there is hope in the form of Save Windermere, the grassroots campaign founded by Matt Staniek. Matt has been working tirelessly over the last two years to fight for the complete removal of all treated and untreated sewage discharges into the Windermere catchment. I had the pleasure of meeting with Matt on a rainy day in late July as he showed me the delights of the various sewage outlets that are polluting the Lake, several of which were spewing grey clouds of partially treated sewage.

Sewage outlets

(Images: Sewage outlet, Matt Staniek at Sawrey Waterwater Treatment Works, sewage outlet next to the Glebe park and Garden)

You would struggle to find anyone else as knowledgeable or passionate as Matt on sewage discharge and phosphorus levels in the lakes. The volume of facts and stats he lists off at ease were in equal part alarming and impressive. We chatted about the roots of his campaign after noticing a decline in species and learning about the sheer scale of pollution, to amassing 269K signatures on his petition and attracting support from big names including Steve Coogan, Lee Mack and Paul Whitehouse.

The ace in his campaign is that cleaning up Windermere is possible because it has been done before. In the 1960s Lake Annecy in France was in a similar state, sewage pollution was causing increased algal blooms and declines in fish populations. Drastic action was taken and now it is now the cleanest lake in Europe. Both lakes are similar in size and geographic makeup, so if it can be done then why not here in one of the world’s favourite National Parks?

Matt’s dogged determination has seen him come up against some heavy hitters from United Utilities as well as local businesses who worry about the impact of the campaign on tourism – begging the question if Lake Windermere is left to die will tourists want to continue visiting anyway? Public awareness has also been a challenge with little local knowledge of the problem. This is compounded by efforts from United Utilities to minimise issues; even on the day of my visit there had been a delivery of a pamphlet to local residents highlighting the investments made by United Utilities in an attempt to cast themselves in a more favourable light.

Luckily there is growing local support for Save Windermere, with stickers and posters proudly displayed in shop windows and on the backs of cars, and a recent gathering of thousands of people on the Glebe in Bowness-on-Windermere to show their support. Matt was also the recipient of our Changemaker of the Year Award as part of our National Park Protector Awards earlier in the month, won in part from a public vote. Campaign for National Parks fully supports the Save Windermere campaign and the vision for clean and thriving freshwater habitats. Learn more about Save Windermere and support the campaign here.

Matt’s campaign highlights a much larger problem in National Parks and Protected Landscapes. What should be the shining examples of healthy and thriving ecosystems are often overlooked and mismanaged. At Campaign for National Parks we’ve been fighting for new powers for National Parks and adding a duty on all public bodies including water companies to take far greater action for Protected Landscapes. Despite a recent setback in our campaign which you can read about here, we haven’t given up hope and are looking ahead to a refreshed debate in September.

We are also calling on all leaders prioritise nature in their election manifestos through the Nature 2030 campaign. Add your name to the Nature 2030 letter today