Water Quality

Dr Claire Waterton is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology and part of a collaborative team of academics, farmers and residents involved in the Loweswater Care Project, which continues to carry out research into the ecology of Loweswater, an isolated lake in the western Lake District. 

As well as research into the lake itself, the Project has also created a local collective which works together to live in more sustainable ways. Supported by institutions such as the National Trust and the Environment Agency, the project team included three researchers from Lancaster University, including Dr Waterton, who specialises in the relationship between science and the environment.

'My main interest is in the making and the politics of environmental knowledge,' says Dr Waterton, 'and how we make knowledge about nature or about the environment.' It was back in 2004 that Dr Waterton was first contacted about the project by Dr Lisa Norton, an ecologist working at the Lancaster Environment Centre. 'She was already working up at Loweswater in Cumbria,' says Dr Waterton, 'and she was looking at issues of farm practices, vegetation and habitat richness, trying to look at the relationships between farming and the land. She became aware that it would be quite interesting to bring a social scientist into her work.

‌Located deep in the Vale of Norton, Loweswater is one of the smaller lakes in the western Lake District and the only lake in this area whose waters flow inland. The village of Loweswater itself can be found at the lake's foot, but the surrounding land consists mainly of pasture for farming and concerns were beginning to emerge about water pollution caused by the use of fertilisers. Data has shown that over the last 25 years a drop in oxygen levels has occurred in Loweswater, leading to a decline in brown trout populations and game angling. Dr Waterton's initial responsibility was to help farmers, local residents and businesses to communicate and bring together their different forms of expertise and knowledge on the ecology of the lake. 'My interest was to find out what they all were,' says Dr Waterton, 'and to see if we could bring them together to make a fuller picture of the pollution.'

The initial scoping study into Loweswater lasted just six months, but the Loweswater Care Project itself was enabled by a  £483, 000 grant funded by the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, or RELU  from 2007 to 2010. Dr Waterton's continuing work involved creating a forum for knowledge to be shared about the dynamics of the lake and the surrounding environment. 'It was a particular kind of forum where no knowledges were taken for granted,' says Dr Waterton. 'We saw it very much as an experiment to see if we could erase some of these hierarchies of scientific knowledge.' Although the funded phase of the research came to an end in December 2010, the work of local farmers, residents and stakeholders continues and the Loweswater Care Programme, as it is now known, still lives on. 'Interest in the topic did not die down,' says Dr Waterton. 'In fact, it was quite the opposite. Even when we finished the research phase of our work the local residents carried on meeting around the issue of pollution in Loweswater, so that's still continuing to this day.'

The culmination of this series of studies over the last decade has not only led to improved knowledge of the ecology of Loweswater but also tangible benefits for the local community. 'We researched how much phosphorus is put on the land and how much the plants on the land need that element,' says Dr Waterton. 'It transpired that three of the farmers in the catchment were applying phosphorus in excess of what the grass actually needed, and that washed out and contributed to pollution in the lake. That small bit of research meant that the farmers could still get the growth in their crop, but they saved money in the process.' The concentration of potentially toxic blue-green algal blooms in the lake is also gradually declining, and overall the project is in line with the EU's Water Framework Directive to improve the water quality and bring Loweswater in line with good ecological standards by 2015.

'It was a very positive experience,' says Dr Waterton, 'although it was also full of complexity and sometimes misunderstandings and arguments. But keeping it going for three years was really great and it showed that human beings are capable of thinking about things in quite interesting ways.'