Blues at the lagoon

The City of Cape Town has erected a sign to warn the public of the poluted water at Milnerton lagoon but civic organisations including the Milnerton Canoe Club wants the water readings to be easily accessable to the public.

Pollution levels in the Milnerton Lagoon have been found to be more than 100 times the safe level for swimming – and the City has been accused of trying to hide the true extent of the problem from the public.

Milnerton Canoe Club is losing members due to the poor water quality at the lagoon, according to club chairman Richard Allen.

He accuses the City of not sharing information about water sampling and says the club can only get the data through the Milnerton Central Ratepayers’ Association (MCRA) and by then it’s two months old.

MCRA member Caroline Marx says she only gets the results of the City’s water tests because she signed an agreement with the City not to pass the information on to the media.

In March she submitted a motion to council requesting that the water-testing results be available to all interested parties.

“This has not been debated yet,” said Ms Marx.

She declined to provide Tabletalk with the City’s water-testing results, citing the confidentiality agreement she had signed. However, Tabletalk was able to get the information from another source.

The reports of water sampling at the Rietvlei and Diep River catchment area for January, February, March and April are compiled by the City’s Scientific Services. They make for alarming reading.

Tests are done according to the South African National 1996 Water Quality Guidelines. A limit of 100 E.coli/ 100ml of water is acceptable to swim in. A limit of 1 000 E.coli/ 100 ml of water is tolerated for partial contact such as canoeing but not to swim in.

According to the four reports Tabletalk has seen, the E.Coli present per 100ml of water at Woodbridge Island for January was 11 500. In February E.coli present per 100ml of water at the Diep River estuary at the mouth (near the Wang Thai Restaurant) was 780. In March the E.coli present per 100ml of water at Woodbridge was 19 000 and in April it was 900.

David Ayres, a member of the Greater Table View Action Forum (GTAF) who sits on the Table Bay Nature Reserve’s protected area advisory committee, confirmed that Diep River had failed to reach the minimum level of water quality allowed for recreational use for the past four months.

Mr Ayres said he was privy to such information because he sat on the committee, but he wanted to know what “warning systems” were in place for recreational users. Mayco member for water and waste Xanthea Limberg said certain sections, such as Flamingo Vlei, where several recreational activities take place, had good water quality and always met guidelines, but the water quality at Milnerton Lagoon was poor and, of late, had seldom met the guidelines.

Signs had been posted to warn the public about the poor water quality, and the City had advised canoeists to exercise caution or stay out of the lagoon altogether, she said.

“The City does attempt to work closely with relevant community organisations in this catchment area, and water quality data is shared with them,” she said.

Not so, said Mr Allen. He said the club’s many requests to the City for emergency water readings went unanswered.

Mr Allen said he knew of only one warning sign that had been posted at the river mouth about 1.2 metres from the club house. Mr Ayres blamed sewage spills, ageing infrastructure, rampant development and growing numbers of backyard dwellers for the poor water quality.

Mr Allen agreed, saying backyarders emptied their “night buckets” in the streets which ran into the stormwater systems and straight into the lagoon.

“The City made lots of promises to do upgrades to the stormwater system, but that was three years ago, and nothing has been done yet,” said Mr Allen.

But Ms Limberg said projects were on track.

“We have identified the Montague Gardens, Dunoon, Doornbach and Phoenix areas as major contributors to the pollution of the lagoons, and have developed preliminary plans to intercept and treat/divert water from the two main canals serving these areas. These include projects to divert the Dunoon/ Doornbach stormwater to sewer, and diversion of Joe Slovo /Phoenix stormwater,” she said.

Mr Ayres said densification shouldn’t happen without concomitant upgrades to infrastructure, and the City wasn’t moving fast enough with its plans to upgrade the Potsdam sewage works.

In October the City announced a multi-million rand expansion to the sewage plant over the next six years (“Plans to expand poo plant,” Tabletalk, October 17, 2018).

Ms Limberg said the City’s water and sanitation department had a computer programme that could flag all pipelines that had or could in the foreseeable future have capacity problems due to densification, the expansion of informal settlements and other factors.

“This being said, sewer overflows in almost 100% of cases are not caused by ageing or poorly maintained pipes, or capacity problems, but rather by misuse of the sewage system,” she said.

Work on the Potsdam sewage plant was going ahead, she said.

“The tender for construction is likely to be advertised around March 2020, with completion of the project scheduled for 2024.”

Mr Allen said the Canoe Club was suffering because of the poor water quality. “We can’t close the club because the city can’t get their act together.”