The City of Cape Town took a week to respond to pressing questions about “off the charts” pollution in Zandvlei; it hasn’t closed the vlei, despite a water expert’s call to do so; and it’s refused to make public the results of its own water tests.
Last week, Dr Kevin Winter, of the Future Water Institute, called for the vlei to be closed for all recreational activities because of the pollution.
Dr Winter revealed that private testing of water samples collected at several points along the route of the Peninsula Paddle had found E.coli levels of 2419 colony forming units (cfu) – the laboratories stop counting at this number – in nine of the 12 samples. There were four samples local to Zandvlei.
The lowest 866 cfu, taken near the middle of the vlei, opposite the yacht club, was over 1700 cfu. Two others, one near and one in the Steenberg canal, particularly at the point in which raw sewage enters the canal, had E coli over 2419 cfu.
According to the government’s water-quality guidelines for recreational use a 500 cfu is “unacceptable” and greatly increases the chances for illness.
Before that story went to print, we asked the City for its own recent data on water-quality tests.
We also asked it to comment on Dr Winter’s remarks and explain what was being done to tackle the pollution problem. A week, repeated follow-up requests and three deadline extensions later, and we were still waiting, when a statement arrived on Tuesday night from Xanthea Limberg, the mayoral committee member for water and waste.
She said the City did not know the location of the pipe that residents say is leaking sewage into Zandvlei, and the City couldn’t comment on the Peninsula Paddle readings without seeing them.
“It is difficult to say whether results are consistent as the private lab has evidently used a different testing method than the City,” said Ms Limberg.
However she did not provide the City’s own water-testing results, despite us asking for them.
She said only that those results showed “ongoing challenges with pollution of urban rivers and canals” which were typical of urban environments.
It was unfair to say the City was not being transparent about water quality, she said, contending that the City had been “generally open” about the water quality problems in the area, closing the vlei on several occasions after water quality samples had shown pollution spikes.
Land invasions and the abuse of the sewers, which caused blockages that spilled sewage into the stormwater system and from there into rivers, canals and vleis, were some of the key causes of the pollution problem, she said.
“The root cause of these issues – rapid urbanisation in a stagnating national economy, combined with almost ubiquitous disregard for laws around sewers and co-ordinated land invasions – is not one with an easy solution. It will take a sustained effort by the whole of society to achieve the reforms necessary to allow our sewer system to function as designed and improve the health of our urban waterways,” she said.
There were about 300 sewer overflows in the City every day she said, adding that most were caused by by-law contraventions and people flushing the wrong things down toilets or dumping directly into manholes.
Meanwhile, Zandvlei remains open to the public for recreational use.
This body of water is a nursery for several fish species, including the white steenbras, carp, leervis/garrick, tilapa, Cape stumpnose, as well as mullets, elf, klipfish, goby and blaasop.
The white steenbras, Cape stumpnose and garrick are all on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) red list as endangered.
Residents, worried about the regularity of sewage leaks into the Zandvlei estuary, have for many years been involved in regular clean ups and Marina da Gama resident Mike Ryder and others have set up nets to catch rubbish flowing down the canals into Zandvlei.
But frequent sewage spills have undermined these efforts.
Earlier this year, Professor Leslie Petrik, from the University of the Western Cape, expressed deep concern with her team’s findings of pharmaceutical chemical compounds in fish.
Professor Petrik said sewage plants had to be upgraded to stop chemicals causing wide-scale feminisation of mussels along the coastline.
The frequency of spills led to an investigation this year by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning (DEADP)
Muizenberg environmentalist Kevin Rack said there were many contaminants in the water that the City did not appear to be testing for and that was a worry.
“Nature has value, especially when your property value is directly linked to water quality and lifestyle is adversely affected,” he said.