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!

City announces new plans to cut sewer spills

Some encouraging news from the City of Cape Town (CoCT), which this week launched its Sewer Spill Reduction Plan.

According to the press release announcing the launch, the plan is designed to contend with the 300 sewer blockages and overflows that happen in the city every day. The aim is to achieve a 50% reduction by 2030 through a combination of “strategic upgrades, upgrades intensified proactive maintenance, more efficient use of resources, and importantly – community education.” The Marina da Gama Association ExCom will track the plan’s progress and bring you updates.

City launches Sewer Spill Reduction Plan

The City of Cape Town’s Water and Sanitation Department is launching a Sewer Spill Reduction Plan to help contend with more than 300 sewer blockages and overflows in the city every day. The plan targets a 50% reduction by 2030, through a combination of strategic upgrades, intensified proactive maintenance, more efficient use of resources, and importantly – community education. Read more below:

The City of Cape Town Water Strategy has identified improving the health of rivers, vleis and water courses as a priority and has set an ambitious target to transform the City into a Water Sensitive City by 2040.

Key to achieving this target will be the reduction of foreign objects in the City’s sewers through education, increased proactive cleaning, as well as improved coordination and synergy with other City directorates.

Sewer blockage hotspot areas such as Khayelitsha, Phoenix/Joe Slovo, Dunoon, Wallacedene, Wesbank, Montrose Park will benefit, among others.

By 2030, the department’s goal is to:

  1. Decrease the number of sewage spills per 100km of pipeline to 50 per month from a baseline of 102 (total network length 9400+km)
  2. Increase the number of kilometres of sewage pipes that are proactively jetted to 1 860km from a baseline of 50km; and
  3. Increase the length of network replaced to 186km of sewage pipes per year from a baseline of 28km.

Over the next three years, more than R10 billion of the City’s R29 billion capital expenditure plan will be invested in water and sanitation infrastructure to support sustainable development, of which R1,6 billion is specifically for conveying sewage.

‘While eliminating sewer overflows is still largely dependent on residents using sewers correctly, the City recognises the serious risks sewer overflows pose to Health and the impact they have on the dignity of community, and is reprioritising resources from other areas to address this more proactively.

‘I visited Khayelitsha with our sanitation teams and saw first-hand the problems our communities live with. Our teams are constantly working to provide short term relief from blockages and other overflows, to ensure clean and healthy environments for our residents,’

‘Whilst on the Khayelitsha tour, I also spoke to our depot teams who shared their reality of working in volatile environments with me. It is challenging for the teams to react quickly to spills in some communities due to the safety risk to the City’s equipment and life.

‘Although the City is significantly increasing the resources available for dealing with sewer overflows, about 75% of overflows would not occur in the first place if residents used sewers correctly. This would mean only flushing human waste and toilet paper. Ensuring that illegal stormwater connections are addressed is also extremely important as these cause the sewers to flood during rainfall. At the same time, the City must keep up with demands placed on underground infrastructure as a result of rapid urbanisation.

‘The City is also prioritising the high-priority areas for reactive maintenance that includes sewer line jetting and over-pumping. We are also cognisant that the department depends on a well trained and equipped labour force to effect this we will embark on a drive to fill key vacancies, acquire critical skills, and ensure that equipment is in a good state.

‘Lastly, the City is running a campaign called Bin it, Don’t block it to raise awareness on how to prevent sewer overflows, and we are calling on communities to educate themselves and their peers. At the end of the day it is residents who pay for the work to remove sewer blockages, and this money could be used for other purposes in the community. Prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes,’ said Councillor Zahid Badroodien, Mayoral Committee Member for Water and Waste.

More info can be found on www.capetown.gov.za/blockedsewers.

In the sewer with City engineer Andrew Taylor

We recently caught up with City of Cape Town (CoCT) engineer Andrew Taylor, who was one of the speakers at a recent public meeting at the Zandvlei Lookout to discuss the state of our waterways. We were particularly keen to know more about the efforts his department is making to bring local sewerage systems up to an acceptable standard and where the Marina fits into the work programme.

At the meeting, you mentioned that CoCT is spending significant sums on our sewerage infrastructure. Is there a figure attached to that investment?

Between July 2019 and June 2021, CoCT allocated approximately R350 million towards upgrading and rehabilitating the sewage network. The Zandvlei-specific figures are as follows:

  • Muizenberg sewer relining – R4 500 000
  • Albertyn Road sewer cleaning – R50 000
  • Axminster Road and Clifton Road sewer cleaning – R1 200 000
  • New pump station in Military Road, Retreat Main refurbishment and re-lining of sewers – R82 000 000

This investment is over and above the regular, day-to-day blockage clearing and other maintenance work.

One of the issues you brought up were the leaking pipes at Surfers’ Corner. Apparently, they were full of holes so sand was coming in and causing blockages. You sent cameras down to inspect and followed up by cleaning out the pipes and covering them with fibreglass socks. We’d would love you to explain this process in more detail.
We clean the pipes thoroughly using high-pressure water jets, circular squeegees and any other appropriate tool. Next, a resin-impregnated tube, the liner, made of felt-like material is either pulled through the inside of sewer line, not on the outside; or inserted using water pressure from manhole to manhole, whichever method best suits the situation. The liner is then inflated with a water balloon and cured over several hours. This balloon is withdrawn once the resin has hardened. This method is known as a cured in place pipe, or CIPP.

How much of the Muizenberg area has undergone this process?
So far, we have covered the beachfront and Atlantic Road as far down as Zandvlei as well as the area on the mountain side of the Main Road. This was by far the largest source of sand infiltrating the sewer system. If all goes according to plan, we will line the Old Village in Muizenberg next, hopefully starting in the coming financial year.

This sounds like a good news story that more people would be interested in knowing about. How long do the pipes last once the fibreglass socks are on – and why does this method work well?
We have used CIPP for at least 25 years and the treated pipes are still 100% functional. The supplier is confident of achieving a 50-year life span. But to quote an internet source: “The warranty covers 50 years, but the lining can last longer than this, even to around 100 years.”

We use CIPP as the costs are now comparable to other methods, there are no joints in the line and, with no excavation involved, it is relatively non-intrusive. It has proved to be impervious to water either entering into or seeping out of the pipe.

What about the Axminster sewer, which also came up at the meeting. After extensive cleaning, is this pipeline now safe?
If by safe you mean there is no danger of flooding or spillages, then yes. We have a high degree of confidence that it has been effectively cleaned. We will, however, monitor it very carefully over the next year for signs of irregular or excessive flow.

What is the pipeline system in Marina da Gama and under the vlei like? Are we in danger of extensive leaks?
Marina da Gama has a relatively low incidence of blockages but has not yet undergone an extensive survey/inspection. The pipeline under the vlei is a cast iron pipe encased in concrete and supported by concrete piles. In 2014, I also lined the pipe using the CIPP method just to make sure there was no impending disaster.

When will the new pump station in Military Road/Seawinds be completed and are we likely to stop having leaks into the Sand River once it is finished?
The new Low Lift pump station is almost completed and should be commissioned by the end of this month. We have already seen a dramatic reduction of sewage flowing into the Sand River and the regular spills will certainly cease. No one can guarantee any mechanical installation. That said, the new station certainly has far better backup systems in place. Load shedding comes to mind here.

It is not only the pump station that has been problematic in the past. The sewer pipeline between Low Lift and Retreat Main has been in a state of collapse for a while, causing several major spills. We rehabilitated this 1200mm pipeline using the CIPP method and re-laid a section as part of the pump station contract. We are now free of blockages and sewer spills from that source, which adds up to a huge success. In addition, we also refurbished the Retreat Main pump station and brought it up to modern standards.

All of these works were executed as part of the Low Lift contract.

Photo: Racine Edwardes

You said that you have two other suburbs to do and then intend to focus on the pipes in Vrygrond. I imagine that is a very big job as the area has grown and there probably isn’t enough infrastructure. What would your plan be there and how would it affect Marina da Gama and Zandvlei?
We are busy cleaning 50km of pipe in the Lotus River before going on to Ocean View. Next, we will cover Seawinds and Lavender Hill, which have a high incidence of blockages. This phase will include as much of Vrygrond as possible if the situation there allows. Please take note that the stormwater system in Vrygrond does not discharge into the Marina or Zandvlei. It flows down to the south.

It is still early days, but we are seeing a reduction in blockages in Lotus River, so we certainly hope to see the same trend wherever else we work. Apart from improving living conditions for residents in these suburbs, the desired effect would be to lower the nutritional and bacteriological load being deposited into the vlei. This is an unknown quantity for us. I do not know if anyone has ever actually measured the end result of such a large operation.