United Utilities has been working to protect and improve Windermere’s water quality for many years, taking responsibility for everything within their control and supporting others to act in any way they can to safeguard the lake for many generations to come.

With increased pressures from urbanisation and climate change, United Utilities has looked to innovative methods to understand water quality conditions and see more clearly where improvement efforts need to be focused.  

One such project has been hi-tech water quality sensors that have been installed in Esthwaite Water and Cunsey Beck. Sion Platts-Kilburn, Wastewater Catchment Manager for Cumbria, explains the work United Utilities has undertaken.

What does the project entail?

The trial will see four of the devices installed – one at each end of Esthwaite and two along Cunsey Beck to help track water quality in real time.

The devices, called “sondes”, will help to better understand water quality much more quickly, so that a plan can be developed to improve it.

The new sondes, installed by RS Hydro, will be able to measure the water in real time, for a number of different factors in unison.  These include organic material, bacteria, ammonia, nutrients such as phosphorus, water temperature and levels of oxygen. These parameters together give a good indication of the health of a lake or river at a given time.

How did the project get off the ground?

Firstly, it’s important to point out that this is a truly collaborative project with the landowner, Graythwaite Estate. This wouldn’t have been possible without them joining forces with us to host the sensors along the lake shore and riverbank.

Only by working together can we build up a picture of what’s going on along the entire lake and river, so we are really pleased to be working with the Graythwaite Estate team.

It’s a very exciting project as we’ve never utilised the technology in this manner. The innovation will give us clear insights into the water quality in the area, with the range of metrics that we’re monitoring in this area goes beyond those which we’ve measured in the past. The more we know, the more we can focus our efforts of improvement in the right places.

There are a range of factors that can affect water quality, including wastewater, private treatment works, land run-off, wildlife and septic tanks, and these new devices will give us a level of insight that we’ve never had before.

The Westmorland Gazette:

Why are you investing in monitoring and not cleaning up our rivers and lakes?

This is just one project and there is investment right across Cumbria with over £900m being spent on 158 projects in the area. £41m will be spent in Windermere, with £19m being fast tracked in the next two years. This will go towards upgrades to four wastewater treatment works, in addition to innovative projects across the region aimed at protecting wildlife and the environment, preventing floods, and enhancing the recreational value of the Lake.

In fact, two out of the four sites where we’re accelerating investment, discharge into Esthwaite or Cunsey Beck. These monitors should provide us with baseline information about the current health of the lake, which we can use to help understand the impact of the improvements that have been delivered as a result of the investment. In this instance the monitoring goes hand in hand with direct investment.

Understanding the issues which affect our water, is a key part of the work we’re doing. While combined sewer overflows are a contributor to pollution, we’ve reduced storm over­flow spills by 39% since 2020 and they’re only one factor.  

The issues affecting our waterways are complex and come from a number of sources – for example run off from roads, agriculture and animals all contribute - so we need a thorough understanding of water quality in order to improve it.

What will the sensors look like?

We’ve made every effort to make them as discreet as can be, but you might notice them along the riverbank. They include a pole, no taller than an adult, and there are only four of them doing a very important job for us.

Traditionally, water sampling is a very manual task with United Utilities employees and volunteers taking samples before they go to a lab. The technology removes the need for people entering the water courses, while speeding up the whole process with real time results.

This means that we can address anything we see much more quickly. It also means that water quality won’t have changed in the time it takes to get results.

The Westmorland Gazette:

What’s next?

This is just the latest research project aimed at advancing the collective understanding of water quality conditions in and around Windermere.

The Big Windermere Survey is a community research initiative led by The Freshwater Biological Association and Lancaster University who have recruited a team of local volunteer citizen scientists to help assess the environmental health of Windermere. The Big Windermere Survey has completed four rounds of surveys representing a full year’s worth of data spanning the four seasons. We’re part of Love Windermere, a partnership made up of organisations from a wide range of sectors. The survey findings will underpin our collective understanding of the lake’s water quality with data and evidence and prioritise effective solutions to improve the condition of the lake.

This deployment of the innovative Sondes is part of a wider innovative investment portfolio – with further solutions focusing on understanding the catchment.

In addition to the additional £19m investment to be spent over the next two years, over the last five years we have:

  • Introduced larger capacity pipes to cope with extra development in the area.
  • Upgraded water treatment works and utilised the latest treatment technology.
  • Halved the amount of phosphorus entering Windermere from our sites since 2015.
  • Increased capacity of the sewer to Tower Wood, which has reduced spill numbers from over 200 to less than 30, further reducing impact on the environment and water quality.