The Great North Swim in Cumbria is the largest open-water swimming event in the UK. This year, 9,000 swimmers clad in wetsuits, swim hats and goggles were set to swim a mile across Lake Windermere, the largest natural lake in England and one of the Lake District's most beautiful spots.
A further 30,000 visitors were predicted to flock to the area to spectate. Yet due to a sudden explosion of blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) in the water the swim had to be cancelled.
A few months earlier signs were put up at nearby Derwentwater to warn visitors about the presence of blue-green algae in the lake, and its potential health impacts on people and dogs. Similar algal outbreaks have been reported in Llyn Padarn in Wales, which was closed for water sports for much of last summer, and Forfar Loch in Scotland, where the Great Scottish Swim had to be postponed in August.
So why is blue-green algae, which exists naturally in ponds, lakes, reservoirs, canals and seas around the world, seen as a hazardous intrudor?
First, high concentrations of blue-green algae form large ‘blooms' and scums (resembling paint or jelly) that can be ugly and smelly if they start to dominate the water.
Second, certain types of algae can produce poisonous toxins that may cause skin rashes, eye irritation, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever and abdominal pain in some people who have swum through or swallowed algal scums. For pets, cattle and sheep the risk is even higher: drinking water infested with algae can lead to severe illness and even death.
Third, the impact of large blooms and scums can have a devastating impact on wildlife. Simply put, the algae suffocates the lakes by depriving other plants of sunlight, which leads to a lack of oxygen in the water. This in turn deprives fish of food and oxygen, which affects insect, mammals and birds further up the food chain.
If left untreated, the blue-green algae threatens the fish and wildlife in and around the water, and can lead to the closure of the lakes for recreational use.
Tourism is the lifeblood of an area as ruggedly beautiful as the Lake District, with its mountains, wooded valleys, tarns and lakes, attracting eight million visitors a year. The closure of the lakes would hit local businesses badly.
A dynamic campaign, Love Your Lakes, has been set up to tackle one significant cause of the algae problem: phosphates in laundry and dishwashing detergents.
Phosphates are designed to soften the water and help disperse dirt in washing loads, but when flushed into the wastewater stream they stimulate an excessive growth of algae in fresh water, which starves fish and plant life of oxygen - a process known as eutrophication.
The National Lottery-funded campaign, a project of sustainable tourism charity Nurture Lakeland, is encouraging locals, businesses and visitors to switch to phosphate-free laundry and dishwasher products.
‘We've mail-shotted 5,000 homes with an eyecatching leaflet to raise awareness and provide information on phosphate-free products,' says Amy McLoughlin, sustainable tourism adviser for Nurture Lakeland. The charity has also worked with 250 accommodation-providers to help them reduce their impact, and attended numerous community events and co-ordinated projects with local schools.
The campaign is currently focusing on Bassenthwaite catchment area, which represents nearly a quarter of the Lake District National Park and covers some of the most beautiful scenery in the area, including deep glacial valleys and three lakes: Thirlmere, Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite.
Too much phosphate in the water is putting Bassenthwaite in particular under extreme pressure. Ninety-five per cent of the treated sewage from the nearby town of Keswick flows into the lake. The rare vendace fish (a UK BAP species) has died out in the lake partly as a result of eutrophication. Levels of phosphate need to be reduced by 40 per cent to restore the health of the water.
The campaign has been running for 12 months. ‘We have had a fantastic response from businesses within the catchment who are very keen to do what they can to protect their local lakes and their local economy,' says McLoughlin.
The aim for 2011 is to expand the campaign to nearby areas also suffering from phosphate-overload, such as Lake Windermere, home of the Great North Swim.
Many sources of phosphates
Detergents are not the only culprits. Phosphates are found in many things and can also enter lakes through fertilisers, sewage and septic-tank run-off. The Love Your Lakes campaign focuses on detergents because work is already being done to address the problems from other sources, such as Defra's Catchment Sensitive Farming programme, which helps farmers to reduce their environmental impact.
The need to act on phosphates in detergents is clear. The organisation UK Water Industry Research has identified that the average phosphate load in sewage attributable to detergents is 25 per cent. However, in a tourist hotspot such as the Keswick area of the Lake District, the Environment Agency estimates the percentage would be much higher due to the industrial amounts of laundry and dishwashing being done.
Many European countries and US states have already banned the use of phosphates in laundry and dishwashing detergents because of their impacts in water courses. Defra is proposing a ban on phosphates but it appears to be a voluntary ban and only in domestic laundry products.
McLoughlin is adamant there is still work to do. ‘As only 10-17 per cent of laundry detergents still contain phosphates, it could be argued that the real problem is dishwashing detergents, which still contain 30 per cent phosphate. Furthermore a large proportion of businesses within the Lake District use commercial products that tend to contain higher levels of phosphate - these would not be covered by the ban.'
The campaign message can be summed up as:
• Choose phosphate-free products
• Wash less - only use washing machines and dishwashers on full load
• Use less detergent - Cumbria is a soft-water area, so you can use a minimal amount of detergent
• If you're not linked to the mains system for sewage, make sure your septic tank is working efficiently
• Limit lawn fertilisers
These are simple, commonsense actions, but it is surprising to see products from brands like Ariel and Bold on the campaign's recommended list of detergents. Although phosphate-free, they also contain other problematic ingredients such as optical brighteners, which are toxic to fish and other animal and plant life. Why not simply recommend plant and mineral-based brands such as Ecover and BioD?
‘In an ideal world we would love people to use only eco-friendly products,' says McLoughlin. ‘However, we recognise that for some people this is a step too far.' In the context of this project, she emphasises the need to reduce the phosphate load in the water and so switching to a phosphate-free brand is the priority.
‘It's a first step to getting people to make that link between what they put down the plughole and where it ends up - our lakes.'
Laura Sevier is a freelance journalist
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