Water laws by-passed

Despite numerous requests for details of the clean-up operation in the bed of the Eerste River in Jonkershoek Nature Reserve after a major borehole drilling sludge spill earlier this month (Water at what price?, Bolander, Wednesday February 7), Stellenbosch municipal manager Geraldine Mettler, has steadfastly avoided supplying substantive details.

Bolander has submitted detailed questions about the sludge spill clean-up on three occasions via email, and the most recent response, received on Friday morning, at 8.28am, states: “The clean-up commenced on 9 February 2018, with the removal of the silt from the river. The rest of the clean-up operation is progressing very slowly. To ensure that no damage is done to the surrounding environment. It is therefore not possible to give an exact completion date.”

Clean-up operations, therefore, commenced more than a week after the sludge spill occurred.

Shortly after receiving this communication, Bolander visited the borehole site with an inspection team from the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), led by environmental officer Nkosinathi Mkonto of the water quality division of the Berg water management area.

The site inspection came about because Charl Pienaar, a member of water activist organisation the Eerste River Crystalline Water tribe, forwarded Bolander’s February 7 article to a senior DWS official, and Bolander accompanied Mr Pienaar and the DWS team on the site inspection.

An inspection of the river bed immediately below the drill site refutes Ms Mettler’s statement.

The sludge spill is still clearly in evidence, up to 30cm deep in places. There is little evidence of any clean-up work.

“They have done nothing here, expect remove the sludge from the centre of the river bed where the water flows,” said Mr Mkonto.

“All of the sludge must be removed from the river bed as soon as possible. We are expecting rain, and it will wash down the river to the dam where it will settle.”

Mr Mkonto also said that Stellenbosch Municipality required a licence in terms of the National Water Act (Act 36 of 1998) in order to drill a borehole in close proximity to the Eerste River, despite Ms Mettler’s assertion to the contrary in a statement to Bolander, dated Friday February 2: “When dealing with licencing (sic) and registration of water use, it is important to point out that a person does not need any permission from the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) to drill any borehole.”

This is refuted by an email in Bolander’s possession, dated Monday December 4 2017 from DWS’s Derril Daniels, deputy director of the Berg-Olifants proto catchment management area, in which he points out, that in terms of the National Water Act’s general authorisation for water use: “No drilling of boreholes or well-points is allowed within the 1:100 year flood line, or riparian habitat of a river, or wetland, depending on the level of impact on the associated resource and unless authorised through a water use licence issued by the Department of Water and Sanitation.”

The borehole is located 10.5m from the Swartbos stream, a tributary of the Eerste River flowing from the southern slopes of the Jonkershoek Valley into the river, and 21 metres from the river itself, well within the 1:100 year flood line for both watercourses.

Despite an assurance that the borehole would be capped and permanently sealed, this has not happened. A loose fitting steel cap, easily removed, has been placed over the borehole casing, adjacent to which is a substantial mound of detritus from the drilling operation.

In the course of his inspection, Mr Mkonto found that the Swartbos stream adjacent to the drill site has a weir with an abstraction point, but the sluice gate in the weir is sealed off, diverting the entire flow of the stream into the abstraction point.

Similarly, 140m upstream of the drill site, there is a weir across the Eerste River and an abstraction point constructed on the south bank. The sluice gate in the weir is also closed, so the entire flow of the Eerste River is diverted into the abstraction point. “There is no natural flow of water below this point,” Mr Mkonto said.

He said that in both instances, it is illegal to divert and abstract the entire flow of a surface watercourse. “Even if the municipality has a licence to abstract from these two watercourses, and I’ll be asking for that licence, it cannot divert the entire flow,” he said, adding that it would have a detrimental effect on the riparian environment below the diversion points.

Mr Mkonto also said that he saw no sign of flow metres at the abstraction points, which should be in place to ensure compliance with permitted abstraction volumes granted in the applicable water use licence.

The two abstractions are piped to a stone building, which bears the legend “Jonkershoek Inkeer Stasie” on the door, and from there, presumably to the local water purification works.

A sign adjacent to the abstraction point upriver identifies it as the property of Stellenbosch Municipality.

Mr Mkonto said that Stellenbosch Municipality would be called to account, in respect of the drilling of the borehole and the diversion of the Eerste River and its tributary, and if it failed to take the necessary remedial action, DWS would pursue the matter in court.

After the inspection visit, Mr Pienaar said: “The spillage of borehole sludge in the most pristine part of the Eerste River in Jonkershoek made me spittingly mad. Stellenbosch Municipality is the state organ that is supposed to abide by and apply the laws that should protect the river from exactly this and other types of pollution, and it seems that the laws of the land to achieve this protection role were flagrantly ignored and broken by the municipality.

“Man versus nature, forcing our ‘solutions’ even in a crisis situation on nature is short-sighted and to the detriment of us, our children and their children for generations to come.

“There are no excuses for this. Those responsible should be punished to the full extent of the law and their own guilty consciences.”