Fresh row over water pollution after reports of sewage spilled into Windermere

A fresh row has broken out of over the state of England’s waters as the bathing season starts, following reports millions of litres of raw sewage were pumped into Windermere.

Documents from water company United Utilities seen by the BBC showed that a fault at a pumping station in Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria left sewage being illegally pumped into the famous lake for 10 hours in February.

The situation was labelled a “scandal” by opposition politicians, while Downing Street said it was “completely unacceptable” and the Environment Agency had the power to launch a criminal prosecution if necessary.

The revelations come as the annual bathing season kicks off, with the Environment Agency monitoring 451 coastal, river and lake sites throughout the summer for water quality.

Samples are tested in labs and uploaded to the Swimfo website which updates daily with information on water quality, and provides risk forecasting information which warns people about poor water quality due to bad weather or pollution incidents.

Windermere is a popular swimming lake, with four designated bathing sites.

The latest revelations come after analysis by Friends of the Earth showed more than 440,000 hours of sewage was released along England’s coastline in 2023, with thousands of spills taking place close to bathing spots.

The campaign group analysed Environment Agency data on sewage overflow outlets to calculate the number and duration of spills directly into the sea and estuaries and near swimming waters.

It found there were 68,481 incidents of sewage released into England’s seas last year, totalling 440,446 hours.

More than a quarter of these, some 117,584 hours over 21,213 spills, were within 1.9 miles (3km) of a bathing spot, the assessment found.

Shadow environment secretary Steve Reed said of the news that pollution was illegally pumped into Windermere: “The Conservatives just folded their arms and looked the other way while United Utilities pumped a tidal wave of raw sewage into Britain’s most beautiful lake.

“The next Labour government will put the water companies under special measures to force United Utilities to clean up their toxic mess.

“We will give the regulator tough new powers to make law-breaking water bosses face criminal charges and ban the payment of their multimillion-pound bonuses until they clean up their toxic filth.”

And Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson Tim Farron said: “This is a scandal. We can’t let them get away with this any longer.

“The public are rightly furious that their favourite local rivers and lakes are being spoiled while water company bosses accept huge bonuses.”

He called for Parliament to accept an amendment he had put forward that could see water company bosses prosecuted for sewage pollution.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Sewage discharge into our waters like this is completely unacceptable and water companies need to clean up their act.

“It’s why we’ve announced a quadrupling of inspections on water company assets, Ofwat are consulting on banning water bosses’ bonuses, Ofwat have stronger powers under the Environment Act now to hold them to account for poor performance.”

A United Utilities spokesperson said: “This incident was caused by an unexpected fault on the third party telecoms cable network in the area, which United Utilities was not notified about and which affected both the primary system and United Utilities’ backup.

There has been outrage over the news at one of England’s most picturesque spots (Danny Lawson/PA)

“As soon as we discovered this fault was affecting the Glebe Road pumping station, our engineers took urgent steps to resolve the situation and we informed the Environment Agency within an hour of the pollution being confirmed.”

For its analysis, Friends of the Earth identified all sewage outflows in coastal or estuary waters, or within 500 metres of the sea, to analyse the number and duration of spills into the water in 2023.

The campaign group also used the location of coastal bathing waters to summarise sewage spills within the vicinity of beaches, and identified all swimming spots which had warnings not to swim due to pollution or for reduced water quality in 2023, to see where was being most affected.

It identified Cowes Beach on the Isle of Wight as most affected, with nearly 5,000 hours of sewage released near the bathing spot in 2023, followed by Meadfoot in Torbay and Plymouth Hoe West.

Friends of the Earth has teamed up with comedian Nish Kumar for a spoof news report on the opening of tourist attraction Sh*t Beach on a seaside town’s sewage-ridden beach.

The comedian said: “Record-breaking amounts of shit and pollution clogging up our rivers and seas is no joke.

“If we don’t act now, we’ll all be swapping our swimmers for hazmat suits and packing an E. coli testing kit before hitting the great British seaside this summer.

A person in protective yellow clothing sits on a deckchair on a beach
Friends of the Earth warns their spoof could be a taste of things to come (Jonathan Salariya/Friends of the Earth/PA)

“We can’t let water companies have the last laugh, as their shareholders pocket huge payouts while our bills increase.

“We need to show that we give too much of a shit about our beaches and rivers to let them end up being a national health hazard.”

Kierra Box, nature campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “We urgently need to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in UK law, to give communities the power to take back their local seas and beaches, to hold polluters to account, and ensure this never happens again,” she urged.