A joint view on what’s happening with the vlei

Following consultations, meetings and discussions with the experts, David Rogers and David Bristow (Zandvlei Trust) and Nick Bode (Marina da Gama Association) highlight concerns, issues and also strong signs of new hope for the future of Zandvlei Estuary Nature Reserve.

Sewerage, weed build-ups and water quality and urban renewal projects were high on the agenda at the latest meeting of the Zandvlei Protected Areas Advisory Committee (ZPAAC), held on 26 January at the Zandvlei Lookout.

The meeting was well attended by key stakeholder groups around Zandvlei, including the Marina Da Gama Association, Zandvlei Trust, Peninsula Canoe Club, Yacht Club, Sea Cadets, Friends of Park Island and the Zandvlei Recreational Anglers’ Association, along with conservation and biological specialists, who have all been meeting monthly since September 2021 to advise the City of Cape Town (CoCT) on matters pertaining to the nature reserve.

Community and transparency was said to be not up to standard generally and this body and its work are now getting up to speed and we hope to keep you informed of these meetings which will be held monthly due to the urgency of the situation.

Photo credit: Wilbur McIlmoyle

A new man in the hot seat

The good news is that the Mayor has escalated waterways, including Zandvlei, as priorities. Also, there was a regular attendee, our ward councillor Amy Kuhl, who often brings a broad perspective on things ‘political’. Unfortunately absent was the new mayoral committee on waterways chairperson, Alex Landsdowne, the man now at the centre of this great big $#!& storm that has many causes upstream, who was scheduled to update us on his work. We hope to be able to engage with him as soon as he is feeling better (get well soon, Alex).

CoCT reported that it is about to appoint various consultants to reinvigorate the 2016 Source to Sea River Corridors and Liveable Urban Wetland initiatives, along with the River Ambassadors and the Adopt a River programmes that lost momentum during the COVID lockdown. Of these projects, the Liveable Urban Waterways Project is extremely relevant and the Westlake, Sand and Keysers Rivers are under the spotlight. The concept is to target pollution culprits particularly in industrial areas, rewild the rivers as far as possible, and also create better spaces for people to enjoy. This will, in turn, enhance the water connections between communities as well as the quality and the flow of water into the Zandvlei Estuary. We are eager to bring people news about these developments and urged the CoCT to keep us informed as far as possible on progress and also gain input from the specialists in the room.

Hats off to Andy

One council employee who deserves special mention here is Andy Taylor, the man responsible for relaying and/or relining the entire sewerage pipe system in the southern peninsula. It’s a hard, tricky and as you can imagine, very dirty job. So, whenever you flush your loo, just give him a thought. The sewage system is old, in some placed dilapidated, and pushed over the edge by human settlement in the catchment over the past few decades. In more recent years it has also been subjected to astonishing abuse and, rumour has it, political sabotage.

E. coli levels down

More good news reported by Kyran Wright of Cape Nature was that E coli levels are much improved in the vlei – but for two major breakdowns during December, one of which remains a mystery. If the trend continues, the vlei could well be opened for recreational use in the next few weeks. 

Weed and algae

The weed infestation which has occurred over the past few months was also a source of concern and brings new challenges. The CoCT has budgeted for weekly drone flights to monitor algal growth and blooms in the waterways for the next two months. This will help to inform the priority areas for clearing by the weed harvester. The CoCT’s teams are also analysing the new strains of algae that have not been seen previously in the vlei. The main causes of the current weed explosion are, as is obvious, sewage spills, but also nutrient flows coming in from the two golf courses upstream at Westlake and Steenberg, suburban gardens (where do you think all the fertilisers and pool backwashing ends up?), and quite possibly the Constantia wine farms.

Our ailing weed harvester

Our very tired and ageing Kingfisher weed harvester has been a source of great concern over many years. Having got a life-saving overhaul and then solving a red-tape issue, it has struggled to operate at full capacity this week due to the recent strong winds. However, it is now operating in the northern canals and has been instructed to focus most of its time in the Uitsig canals this week. Of course, everyone and their dog has an opinion about how it should be doing its job, without ever having tried to operate this noisy, shaking and ancient beast. For two weeks this month, reserve manager Kyran Wright had to take over the controls when the regular operator had to isolate due to a COVID contact. Kyran says his hands and arms have still not recovered, so go ahead and volunteer to give it a try if you are feeling brave and foolish!

The construction of the first of two new weed harvesters is on track to be completed and delivered by June 2022. They are to be run, maintained and operated by third party contractors so, hopefully, there will not be the current maintenance delays with so many layers of government approval required for even the smallest spare part.

Two boat crews with six people each will be hired by the CoCT to mop up alga in areas the weed harvester can’t get to. The contract will hopefully be finalised next month. If there is a pile-up of harvested algae nearby, please bear with us as we try to tackle this never-seen-before infestation.

Estuary mouth management

The mouth is scheduled to be opened at the next spring tide as it’s a great high tide with a height of 1,95m. This will lead to increased salinity that will hopefully slow down some of the worst weed growth. Also, the resultant increased water depth around our houses, by around 20cm, will also allow for greater water circulation, which also helps control the weed-algae infestation*. Recent oxygen and salinity readings are all within an acceptable range and continue to be regularly sampled. Night/early morning oxygen sampling will also be initiated to account for the variable respiration rates of algae.

* For those not aware, the mouth is opened in summer to allow the inflow of sea water, and in winter to allow the outflow of fresh rainwater in an attempt to maintain regular water levels and salinity. The vlei is an artificial lake that was created early in the 20th century – along with Zeekoevlei – to facilitate recreation when rowing was the big thing. Under natural conditions, the vlei (estuary) would have run completely dry in summer. Hence its name Zandvlei. That is also why it needs to intensively managed.

Zandvlei Trust

The Zandvlei Trust, a volunteer group of environmentally concerned residents from all around the vlei, has employed staff to clean up nets, the water’s edge and the Sand River mouth canal. The trust has taken over the tasks that were previously managed by Mike Ryder and also expanded to other areas of the vlei. To be more inclusive, regular monthly litter ‘chicken parades’ are being co-ordinated by the Trust: join them if you can on the first Saturday of every month, meeting at Thesen’s Bridge near Axminster Road on Zandlvei at 9.30am. Bring something to drink, wellies if you have them, and maybe a fork, rake or braai tongs. The Trust will provide bags.

What’s up with the birds?

A water bird census was conducted last week and we look forward to the results. Kyran pointed out that waterfowl are not a particularly good indicator of water quality and numerous species even prefer polluted waterways. For example, some of the best birding in South Africa happens at sewerage works. He believes that our lack of waterfowl is because they are being impacted by the lack of pondweed, which is a primary food source. The big numbers and variety we used to enjoy have moved to other waterbodies and parts of the vlei. Kyran said that they counted more than 300 coots around the Sand River mouth. He believes that this is a wind shielded area and also close to a large pondweed stand. Answering the concerns of some residents, he pointed out that the reason some birds, such as weavers, appear to have abandoned their nests is that it’s the end of their breeding season.

Cleaning up the greater vlei area might at times feel like trying to push water uphill with a rake, but we have to tackle one issue at a time. Many small steps will – with luck, hope and hard work – lead to solutions and a happy, clean water environment.

ZPAAC points the way out of the vlei crisis

Nick Bode, who heads up the MDGA ExCom’s Waterways portfolio, reviews recent developments on Zandvlei and looks at how we move towards a sustainable, long-term answer to the current problems.

We’re under no illusions that that this has been a trying few months for all Marina da Gama residents. During a time when we should all be outside enjoying the holidays, enjoying the summer sun, enjoying the waterways, we have been forced to stay away from the canals and off the vlei. 

The reason: an explosive build-up of algae fed by the water’s unusually high nutrition content caused, in turn, by a series of sewage spills over the last six months. All that plus a broken-down Kingfisher and persistently high e. coli levels.

As I will explain, the MDGA is simply not in a position to tackle the root causes of this ongoing crisis on its own. More of that later. For now, a huge thanks to the people who took steps to tackle the symptoms over the holidays. Among others, they include resident volunteers and members of the MDGA ExCom, who joined forces with Kyran Wright and his team from the Zandvlei Estuary Nature Reserve (ZENR) to trial new ways of clearing algae while the Kingfisher was out of action again. This time, the problem was not down to mechanical failure. Instead, the South African Marine Safety Authority (SAMSA) stepped in to immobilise the Kingfisher in a tangle of red tape.

Undaunted, Kyran and his algae busters used a net drawn by a motor-powered dinghy combined with rakes, bare hands and raw elbow grease to produce some dramatic results in some of the worst affected canals – as the photos have proved. Inevitably, however, the faster they worked, the faster the algae grew back.

With an environmental disaster looming, the MDGA ExCom threw its support behind ZENR as it pushed back hard against SAMSA with demands for an exemption to the Kingfisher’s red tape requirements. Under new rules, the exemption was granted just in time. As a result, the Kingfisher has once again been out on the waterways over the last couple of weeks – and long may it last.

But even this part of the story was not without its dramas. Just before he was due to return to work, the City of Cape Town (CoCT)’s Kingfisher skipper was forced to isolate after several of his family members caught COVID-19. Once again, Kyran Wright came to the rescue. Swapping his estuary manager’s sun hat for his Kingfisher skipper’s cap, he spent the next few days working flat out over the holiday period to clear the build-up.

Thankfully, the CoCT’s Kingfisher crew is now back at work and focusing on the worst affected areas. Once they are relatively algae-free, the weed eater will start working from the south of the vlei and make its way north as the prevailing wind keeps pushing the floating algae to the northern shores.

So much for tackling the symptoms. The waterways remain shut, the sewerage spills persist, the algae is rampant. How are we going to eliminate the causes of the current – seemingly endless – crisis?

There was recent talk on Facebook about following the example of residents living around the Woodbridge Lagoon in Milnerton by launching a legal fight against the CoCT. This approach is just one option and it is not the one we prefer. For s start, the MDGA is prohibited under its constitution from spending more than R100 000 (adjusted by annual inflation) on any single action or item without members’ approval. At today’s rates, that sum would hardly cover the cost of buying tea-break biscuits for the duration of any hearing.

In our opinion, the best strategy involves maintaining close links with CoCT decision makers. As we report elsewhere in this week’s newsletter, a delegation of these City employees visited the Marina this week. They included Cllr Zahid Badroodien, the newly elected Mayoral Committee Member for Water and Sanitation as well as the heads of Reticulation, Pump Stations and Cape Nature.

In parallel, we are throwing our support behind the Zandvlei Protected Areas Advisory Committee (ZPAAC). We believe ZPAAC is the correct forum in which to air our grievances and lobby for CoCT action. It is a CoCT statutory body with multi-party representation and credible professionals who have proven technical abilities.

Along with a number of other Marina-based groups, we are very strongly represented on ZPAAC, which is busy compiling a detailed and comprehensive legal directive against the CoCT, Milnerton-style. The draft directive covers every possible cause of our current crisis – from human errors and defective telemetry systems to sewerage spills and faulty pump station maintenance.

ZPAAC has recently been reconfigured into a dynamic working body that now holds monthly meetings bringing together all residents’ groups surrounding Zandvlei. As such, it has far more clout than an individual body like the MDGA.

The next ZPAAC meeting is scheduled for this week. I look forward bringing you a full report on the proceedings and action points as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, here’s hoping for some good news on the E. coli levels in the near future!

Interested in knowing more about night counts?

It was a cold and windy night when the Zandvlei Estuary Nature Reserves (ZENR) held its last quarterly night count on 20 September. Despite the conditions, however, it still turned out to be time well spent.

Among other discoveries, the conservation team counted three porcupines and a spotted eagle. They also saw three grysbok on Park Island and the resident population appears to be in good health.

Many residents have asked to join ZENR’s regular night counts.  This sounds like a wonderful idea and, in fact, it has been tried before. However, the counting team discovered that residents were particularly keen to ask questions about the night life they were seeing. Understandable, of course. But their curiosity made it difficult for team members to move quietly.

Even so, Kyran Wright, who manages ZENR, is open to the idea of holding an informal community event that would give residents a chance to ask questions and learn more about why ZENR’s night counts are so important. The feeling is that we should wait until the weather gets a bit warmer. So, if you’re interested, watch this space for more details.

Kyran’s presentation is essential viewing

Residents who attended the MDGA’s AGM last month were privileged to hear Kyran Wright, manager of the Zandvlei Estuary Nature Reserve (ZENR), give a highly informative presentation on the state of our waterways. We’re pleased to bring you a Zoom link to his presentation, which is essential viewing for anyone who is concerned about the current situation.