Submit your email address below to receive email updates from Cumbria24.
Experts and environmentalists have started work on a blueprint for the future of water supplies in west Cumbria. United Utilities, the Environment Agency, West Cumbria Rivers Trust and Natural England together with councils, conservationists and charities are looking for the best way to protect the environment while keeping 150,000 households' water on tap now and for years to come.
Representatives met in Penrith yesterday (September 18) for a meeting chaired by John Wilson who is Chair of the West Cumbria Rivers Trust.
In Cumbria, as in the rest of the North West, it is United Utilities' responsibility to draw up both a Water Resources Management Plan, and a separate Drought Plan.
One issue considered by the meeting was the effect of a changing climate and our ever-increasing understanding of habitats and the needs of species which share our lakes, streams and rivers.
In June, an important colony of freshwater mussels, a protected species, suffered severe stress and some were killed. It is thought low water levels in the River Ehen may have contributed to the incident, even though the amount of water being put into the river was above the agreed and legally required levels.
The Environment Agency, Natural England, United Utilities and West Cumbria Rivers Trust are working closely to help the mussel population recover and thrive in the short and medium term. In the long term, major investment in new infrastructure to create or connect alternative sources of water will help protect delicate habitats like these even more.
The first project, a £15m scheme to supply water from new boreholes at Egremont, will start next spring when a new pipeline will be built to link them to Ennerdale Water Treatment Works.
John Wilson of West Cumbria Rivers Trust said: "The meeting was a very useful airing of all the issues, and water and environment experts listened attentively to the views of bodies including angling groups, conservation and wildlife groups, councils, businesses and scientists.
"West Cumbria has some very special iconic species in its lakes and rivers, not just freshwater mussels but also things like char, Atlantic salmon and lamprey. It’s also a place where people live, work and come to visit. In Allerdale and Copeland the tourism industry is worth about £600m per annum and employs about 8,000 people; so making sure there’s enough water for health, recreation and economic growth, while meeting the needs of the environment, is a very fine balance.
"The meeting heard how the health of West Cumbria’s mussel population has improved significantly since June. This is good news and we have to get water levels right, but there are more factors at play than simply the amount and speed of water in the river. Freshwater mussels are just as dependent on the quality of the water itself and that’s an issue for the way the whole catchment is managed.
"West Cumbria Rivers Trust is ideally placed to help with this work, having just been successful is securing serious funding from the European Union for a project to improve the Ehen and Ennerdale catchment and we will be recruiting a project officer for the next four years whose job will include trying to improve the habitat for the Ehen’s freshwater mussels.”
Water and environment bosses will now use the views to start drawing up potential options for future management of water resources in west Cumbria before presenting them to the wider community in the months to come.
Jez Westgarth from the Environment Agency said: "The River Ehen is a vital water resource for West Cumbria but it is also home to a precious mussel species. We are working with United Utilities, the West Cumbria Rivers Trust and Natural England to investigate how best to manage the challenge of creating a sustainable water supply for West Cumbria.”
Simon Humphries of environmental advisory body Natural England added: "Ennerdale Water and the River Ehen are protected as two of the most important wildlife sites in the country – the Ehen is one of the most important rivers in Europe for rare freshwater mussels - and Natural England has a responsibility for ensuring this special status is maintained. We are therefore working closely with the Environment Agency, United Utilities and West Cumbria Rivers Trust to ensure the initiatives and agreements in the area continue to protect and encourage freshwater mussels and other wildlife to thrive.”