The view above – looking along Ennerdale Water from the western end – is one that I’ve used before in this blog. The difference today is that there is about twenty metres of foreshore exposed. Normally, water covers all the area in the foreground. Not today: Ennerdale Water is one more victim of our present drought conditions. During the winter, we often see water splashing over the weir at the outfall; today, the weir head is a metre above the lake level and flow in the River Ehen is maintained only by pumps installed by United Utilities.
When W.H. Pearsall visited Ennerdale Water in the 1920s, he considered it to be one of the most primitive of the Lake District’s lakes (see “The power of rock …”). However, this supposedly wild lake had been tamed by a weir since the middle of the 19th century in order to provide drinking water for Whitehaven and Workington and surrounding areas. That, in turn, has consequences for the river downstream, especially at times such as this when, unless augmented by pumps, there would be no water in the River Ehen below the outfall. At some point in the next decade, a new water infrastructure project will pipe water to west Cumbria from Thirlmere, after which the weir can be removed and fluctuations in water level in both lake and river will be more natural.
The weir at the outfall of Ennerdale Water, with the fish pass at the far end.
Meanwhile, however, I was able to explore areas of the lake littoral zone that would normally be hidden from me. My notebook, for example, records my observations that this part of the lake shore has a stony bottom yet, as can be seen from the picture above, these form a belt about 20 metres wide, after which there is firm sand. Normally, this would be close to the limit of safe wading but, today, I could walk out with just a pair of thin neoprene shoes. Looking down, I could see a number of tufts of the alga Nitella flexilis growing in this sand. I’ve written about this species before (see “Finding the missing link in plant evolution …”) and have seen it in the lake before, but not in this particular location. Standing with the lake water lapping against my shins I could bend down and take some photographs of these with my underwater camera that give this usually chilly location a semi-tropical feel.
It is a useful reminder to those of us who dabble in lake littoral zones and think that we understand their ecology that a lot happens beyond the depth in which we can safely wade. Marco Cantonati and colleagues, for example, have found big changes in the composition of the algal flora of Alpine lakes when they used Scuba diving to explore the depths of their littoral zones. No doubt, we would see similar changes if we were to try the same in the Lake District.
Cantonati, M., Scola, S., Angeli, N., Guella, G. & Frassanito, R. (2009). Environmental controls of epilithic diatom depth-distribution in an oligotrophic lake characterized by marked water-level fluctuations. European Journal of Phycology 44: 15-29.
Cantonati, M. & Lowe, R.L. (2014). Lake benthic algae: toward an understanding of their ecology. Freshwater Science 33: 475-486.