The issue of sewage pollution in rivers and lakes, having become a political football and filling the media headlines, is exemplified by the case of Lake Windermere, highlights the ecological consequences of outdated sewerage systems and inadequate waste treatment.  

The responsibility for managing this problem lies with privatised wastewater companies, such as United Utilities, which collect and treat waste from households and businesses. However, these businesses inherited a system to discharge of untreated or partially treated waste during peak flow events, exacerbated by storm water overflow, poses a significant threat to water bodies like Lake Windermere. The government hoped that private investment would solve the problem, but it has proved prohibitively expensive, and the water companies have been criticised for slow progress and for rewarding their shareholders in preference to more investment. 

At Lake Windermere, the accumulation of hazardous materials on the lakebed, resulting from the settling of this waste, further exacerbates the problem. Windermere, a inland lake, lacks the natural flushing mechanism of flowing into the sea, thereby perpetuating the presence of this hazardous load within its waters. Compounding the issue, ownership disputes over the lakebed have recently emerged between South Lakeland District Council and Windermere and Bowness Town Council, resulting in the transfer of ownership to Westmorland and Furness Council on April 1, 2023. 

New Council Remit of Lake Windermere

Westmorland and Furness Council now have the authority and responsibility to address this critical situation, which has gone unnoticed and unchallenged for years under the stewardship of South Lakeland District Council. If such waste were disposed of openly in fields or hillsides, legal action would be taken by the local council or environmental agencies. Yet, the hazardous waste beneath the waterline of Lake Windermere has been allowed to persist due to its hidden nature and has changed the ecosystem of the lake through nitrification, a surplus of nutrients that cause algal blooms. The algal bloom has increased the temperature of the water in the lake resulting in depletion of some species of invertebrates and fish. 

To rectify this situation, Westmorland and Furness Council must take immediate action to prevent further growth of the hazardous waste dump and initiate measures to clear the existing contamination.  

Whilst local MP Tim Farron has rightly criticised utility companies for their sewage dumping practices and has called on the government to force the water companies to address the problem more urgently. The Environment Agency (EA) are the government regulators responsible for control of pollution under the Water Environment Regulations (2017, formerly EU Water Framework Directive). The agency tells us that although they permitted waste discharges of sewage still require the owner’s permission. It has been the responsibility of   South Lakeland Council for a decade or more, and subsequently the new Westmorland and Furness Council, to address this pressing issue as the owners of Windermere. By doing so, we at FERN believe they will and should fulfil their legal obligations and safeguard the ecological integrity of Lake Windermere. 

Background on Lake Windermere 

Windermere Lake is aribbon lakein theLake District.It is the largest lake in England by length, area, and volume. The lake is about 11 miles (18 km) in length and 1 mile (1.6 km) at its widest, has a maximum depth of 64 metres (210 ft), and has an elevation of 39 metres (128 ft) above sea level. 

The ownership of the water in Lake Windermere is a complex matter. In the United Kingdom, the general principle is that the ownership of water bodies, including lakes and rivers, is vested in the Crown. This means that the water itself is owned by the state, representing the public interest. 

In the case of Lake Windermere, as a navigable lake, there are specific legal provisions that govern its use and management. The Lake Windermere Navigation Byelaws 2005, made under the authority of the British Transport Commission Act 1962, regulate activities on the lake, including boating and navigation.

Ownership of Lake Windermere

While the Crown retains ownership of the water, certain rights and responsibilities are delegated to specific authorities. The Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA) has jurisdiction over the lake and its shores within the Lake District National Park boundaries. They have the power to regulate and manage various aspects of the lake, including recreational activities and environmental conservation. 

It is important to note that while the water itself is owned by the state, the ownership of the lakebed and shoreline, as mentioned earlier, rests with Westmorland and Furness Council, following the transfer of assets from South Lakeland District Council in 2023. 

The Liberal Democrats control Westmorland and Furness Council and controlled South Lakes District Council previously