Killing a River

Killing a River
W
hat happens when you combine a Gung-Ho attitude to personal safety, a secret hankering to be an investigative journalist, a life–long passion for fly fishing and a love of the unspoiled beauty of one’s natural surroundings? Well for starters you end up with a sore body with bruises and scratches all over, plus a hefty bill for anti-inflammatories and some disgusting video footage of the desecration of what once was, and still should, be a pristine mountain stream.

Most of the trout waters we fish in these parts flow through what is known as the Limietberg Reserve, a nature reserve designed to protect the last vestiges of a clean mountain habitat in the high country of the Western Cape hills. Up there the water remains cool and clear throughout the year, or at least it should. Winter rainfall and snow on the mountain tops seeps down into the underlying Table Mountain Sandstone percolating through the peaty fynbos and rock fissures to emerge as slightly tan coloured and crystal clear pure spring water. Other than the slight tea coloured staining from the decaying fynbos, the water is pure as a vestal virgin. We have never had issues with gardia or ecoli and for years were able to drink the water with impunity. (A dash of scotch just enhanced the flavour and slightly darkened the colour) Anglers and hikers have for years walked these waterways without thought to carry a water bottle, there was never any need.

ClearMountainStreamA typical section of crystal clear Cape Mountain Stream

These headwaters lie in the middle of the most bio-diverse plant kingdom on the planet. Despite its relatively small size; the Cape Floral Kingdom boasts the most varied selection of plant species per unit area of anywhere on earth. It makes the Amazon Basin appear positively monotonous when it comes to variety. The Cape Floral Kingdom was included in the World Heritage List in 2004 and is recognized as one of the world’s ʻhottest hotspotsʼ for its diversity of endemic and threatened plants, and contains outstanding examples of significant ongoing ecological, biological and evolutionary processes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Smalblaar River flows through the Limietberg reserve, a nature reserve and popular fishing and hiking location. The river shown in this blog actually runs alongside the first part of the Krom River hiking trail, a very popular summer day hike.

The mountains hereabouts also harbour a few endangered mountain leopards, http://capeleopard.org.za/ and act as home to Water Mongoose, Baboons, Klipspringer and Cape Clawless Otters amongst other animal and bird species. You might occasionally see an African Fish Eagle in the skies or Double Collared Sunbirds catching insects or syphoning nectar from the indigenous Proteas.

LeopardThe reserve boasts considerable biodiversity and some endangered Cape Mountain Leopards include sections of the reserve in their extensive home ranges.

These high mountain streams are the headwaters of the Breede River, the Breede River Valley being an incredibly important farming area and one that produces huge numbers of table and wine grapes as well as other fruits, all irrigated from the waters of the Breede River itself. The Breede River then flows East for some 300 odd Kilometres East to emerge at Witsands emptying into the Indian Ocean.

BreedeRiverFarmingThe Breede River Valley is a major grape producing region and important to the local economy

So with all of that, the biodiversity, the presence of endangered animal and plant species, the importance of the water source with its associated export quality agricultural produce and the Natural Heritage and Nature Reserve Status of the area, one might imagine that it would be well looked after. APPARENTLY NOT.

You see, those of us who make use of the rivers on a regular basis have seen a decline in water quality now over a period of years. Waters which were never turbid, even in the worst of the winter rains, now turn chocolate on occasion. Flows which were eminently drinkable for decades now come with a warning of the risk of E Coli infection. Rocks which were once clean high grip sandstone now have the frictional coefficient of black ice, as a result of algal growth and siltation which was never the case a decade or so back.

This past spring the situation seems to have worsened, in fact on top of some of the other travesties witnessed it isn’t entirely unusual for these once pristine streams to have a distinct and unpleasant odour.

We have laid complaints and trusted that “things would be done”, we have endured endless excuses of septic tank overflows, coprophyllic otters, over zealous Tench, dam wall breakages, flows of human waste from the roadside and more. The turbid waters have been blamed on everything from ducks to mountain fires and yet the situation declines further.

It was then; with this history in mind, that last Thursday I undertook a somewhat adventurous investigation to find out the truth, or at least part of the truth.
The upper reaches of the Smalblaar River fork high in the hills, the Krom River, part of a very popular day hike, comes in from the North whilst the Smalblaar (sometimes referred to as the Molenaars or even Spruit River) joins from the North East. Up on the banks of this North Eastern fork lays the De Poort property, home to an intensive aquaculture operation run by Malapong Aquaculture, itself a subsidiary of Viking Fishing Aquaculture. http://www.vikingaquaculture.co.za/about/

Recreational users, anglers and hikers, have complained for some time that much, if not all, of the pollution comes from this source, a result of poor or non-existent filtration systems in what can only be described as a very high density factory farming operation. But it is tricky to demonstrate. The farm and its outlet pipes lie above a number of intimidating waterfalls and long pools which provide significant barriers to investigation. You might argue that this spot is very conveniently situated if you were trying to hide something. The only way up the river is to swim (through the now fetid flows of a desecrated stream, with mouth firmly shut), clamber and climb over slippery boulders and dense bankside vegetation. Anyway I wasn’t to be put off, that is what I set out to do, to find out what does the water look like above the farm, in essence what is the difference between water flowing into the farm (they take about half of the flow of the river through their system) and what does it look like once it emerges from the fish ponds.

I should add that lower down the damage isn’t quite so apparent, the waters are diluted by the inflows from the Krom River and then the Elandspad which, to the eye, mitigate, most of the time, the more obvious indications of the filth. Then again the very same company has additional fish ponds lower down the river at Du Kloof Estate which will then add insult to injury as the waters are once again diverted through them, picking up silt and waste as it goes and dumping it back once more into the stream.

So off I set, waterproof camera, waterproof bag, wading staff (the rocks are slick with filth), and bottled water (you really wouldn’t want to swallow this stuff).

At the Krom river intersection I headed to the left, first taking a few pictures of the Krom, reference to what a pristine Cape Mountain stream is supposed to look like.

The “Junction Pool” , despite the dilution effects of the incoming Krom flows already exhibited considerable amounts of siltation, something unseen in the incoming tributary. This in spring when one would imagine the waters had been cleansed by winter rainfall but a month or two previously.

I then clambered higher, and as I went became more disgusted and more depressed with each step. As I hiked the amount of siltation increased and the turbidity of the water became more and more noticeable. Higher still and green algae clad the rocks, something entirely unseen in the unspoiled sections of these rivers. An indication more than likely of nutrient overload, but from where?

DirtyWater
This once clean waterway is now just a murky shadow of its former self. Filled with discoloured fetid water. The rocks coated in silt and gunge.

I swam through the first barrier and then swam and climbed past the next, there were a few moments where I was very thankful for some rock climbing experience and even then a few of the traverses were more than a bit frightening, wading boots do not make for good climbing shoes. It should have been idyllic, but there I was, risking life and limb above a gorgeously attractive plunge pool with an impressive waterfall at the head, or it would have been impressive but for the murky waters of the pool itself. It was no longer possible to see into the depths or to safely guess ones next footfall, the water, more grey porridge than crystal stream. The mission to find out exactly why it was so degraded.

PlungePool

This plunge pool looks idyllic until you look closely at the water at the bottom, it is brown filthy muck, not the crystal clear water that one should expect in these parts.

I pressed on, the occasional empty “Aquaculture Feed Bag” trapped in the bankside roots a sign that I was getting closer to my goal, the outflow of the farm itself.

Feedbag

Then all of a sudden there it was, hidden in the dense foliage, a tributary entering from the West and my goodness what a revelation. On my downstream side, grey sludge, murky water, near zero visibility and not three feet to my right, the crystal clear, slightly tea stained, silt free sight of an unsullied highland waterway.

CleanAboveNot a few feet upstream of the outlet the water was as clear as a bell.

There cannot be any doubt, the water going into the farm is pure, crystal, spring fed, silt free, potable water and that coming out of it is just filth. A flow sullied with the uneaten foodstuffs and the unfiltered excrement of thousands of farmed fish. More than likely added to during harvesting operations or pond cleaning with even more silt and faeces.

Our beloved river callously abused as a personal sewer pipe for the farm owners who apparently view profit above the value of a mountain stream midst the most bio-diverse plant kingdom on the planet. The deliberate, amoral and knowing pollution of a river which feeds the entire Breede River farming system. A system providing the water which is poured over your wine and table grapes, which provides hydration to endangered Cape Mountain Leopards and recreation to hundreds of anglers, canoeists, anglers, boaters and picnickers along its length. I stood there simply amazed: How is it possible that such sacrilege can carry on without sanction? How is it close to reasonable that such blatant abuse can continue under the supposedly watchful eye of some of the most well-structured water protection legislation on the planet? http://www.energy.gov.za/files/policies/act_nationalwater36of1998.pdf Why should it be that such behavior is allowed within the confines of a Nature Reserve and one of the “Hottest Hotspots” of plant biodiversity in the world?

Have a look at some of the video footage below:

I know that I live in a country where corruption is endemic, I know that governmental agencies are underfunded and poorly staffed, but I also know that South Africa makes a big noise about tourism. I know that I live in a region which exports wine and fruit from the Breede River Valley all over the world and prides itself on its custodianship of the most biodiverse plant kingdom known to man.

Trust me when I tell you that trout isn’t a basic foodstuff, and that the people who are prepared to buy it are prepared to pay enough to allow a farmer to run his or her operation properly and with due consideration for the environment.  So please share this post, bring it to the attention of farmers, restaurant owners, purchasing managers, nature officials, chefs, nature lovers, anglers, wine drinkers, and more.

This isn’t about anglers, or hikers, this is about standing up to corporate greed. It is about saying “not on my watch” that people cannot abuse the planet on which we live for short term personal profit. It is about saying the rules are there to protect us all and to look after a fragile ecosystem on which, at the end of the day, we all depend upon for our survival. I would draw your attention to Maslow’s Hierarchy: You will notice that water gets a special mention quite early on.

MaslowWater is essential to life and appears on the very first layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, for good reason

Letting people poison our water simply isn’t a good idea, even if you never hike, canoe, fish or drink wine. Water you need, pure clear, potable drinking water, without trout shit in it. Water the way nature intended before Molapong Aquaculture decided that their profits were more important than your well-being. The rights of the people of South Africa to water are clearly stated within Chapter 2 of the Bill of Rights, part of the country’s constitution.

Viking Aquaculture’s own website tells you that:
Viking Fishing Aquaculture produces fresh and frozen rainbow trout from crystal clear mountain streams in the Cape Winelands region.

Yes crystal clear until they put their factory farming operations in place, before they turned the mountain streams of the Cape Winelands into their own personal “for profit” sewerage system.

There is currently, according to their own press, a growing demand for farmed trout. I hope that this blog post will do something to change that. I hope that anyone who reads this will recognize that it isn’t worth it. It isn’t worth destroying a pristine environment for the sake of increased profit for a company providing non-essential food stuffs.

I love trout, real, wild, stream born trout, although I would never eat one. But to sully an entire river system, so that people can chomp down on finless farmed fish which mill around endlessly breathing their own faeces whilst waiting for the next batch of beta carotene enhanced anchovy pellets for dinner, well that is madness. The only good thing about it? With the irrigation practices downstream of the fishfarm, at least your accompanying glass of Cape Chardonnay should also deliver that subtle hint of fish shit to go with your smoked trout Hors d’oeuvre. Enjoy.

TroutLemon

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead

 Footnotes:

The wellbeing of these rivers and the enforcement of the falls to the Breede-Overberg Catchment Management Agency.

 

 

 

 

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8 Responses to “Killing a River”

  1. derrickjknight Says:

    Well done and good luck

  2. Ulrich Says:

    Nicely done Tim and thank you for taking the time to do this. You are an example to us all.

  3. Marianne Says:

    Well written Tim and I hope it gets the exposure it deserves.

  4. Paul , E. (Ernst) (NFP) Says:

    Hi Tim..cannot tell you how sad it made me to read this..sad and disgusted! Surely ,there must be something we can do before it’s too late..?

    What is Cape Nature’s take/stance on this..? I have seen how the lower beats (below Du Toitskloof lodge) have deteriorated over the past few years and it sadly also reflects in the number of fish and especially the new fry/fingerlings that you catch/see on these beats..

    I mean it’s like chalk and cheese when you compare the Elandspad beats with the Smalblaar..Elandspad is alive with healthy and lively young fish and you can still see them playing/feeding in most of the drifts and pockets and pools..Smal has a few big fish left, but they are getting fewer and further in between…well in my last few outings I really struggled to catch any fish on dry fly and all I could think to blame is the dull and murky water conditions..and you’re right ,no more bending down for a quick sip of cool and fresh mountain stream like years ago..

    Really wish more I could do other than sending this on to everyone I know..What about a petition to BOCMA perhaps..?

    Rgds

    Ernst

  5. paracaddis Says:

    Yes Ernst, it isn’t pleasant and more so that things have been unaddressed for so long. That said this initiative is putting pressure on the powers that be, Everyone’s participation, every share of this post, every comment all add to the value of the public awareness and in turn the necessity for BOCMA and Cape Nature to take action and be public about it. Thank you for your comments. A petition is in the planning too because I agree with you that has potential benefit for the cause.

  6. daavblack Says:

    Hi Tim,

    I fished the Smallblaar for the first time this past weekend. Unfortunately we were acutely aware of the increasing turbidity in the river’s higher reaches – obviously Molapong’s conscious pollution is still a serious issue. Can I ask if anything has come of this blog post/stand?

    Regards,
    David

    • paracaddis Says:

      Regrettably David, whilst quite a lot has happened, not a lot of it has been good. I am still in regular contact with the people at BOCMA (Now BGCMA) and they tell me that various studies and “investigations” are ongoing, but there has been little in terms of concrete action. Agreements from the management of the fish farms to change their ways, in terms of changing the feed used, provision of a wetland filtration structure and re-implimentation of a settling pond as the lower reaches of the farm haven’t been honoured. The feed has been changed and the settling pond is currently in play, but that more a question of the normal harvesting of the fish at this time than anything else. There seems little doubt that the cycle will resume again during the winter months when stocks will be increased once more and with no attempt at filtration I expect that we will see further serious pollution once more. Without pressure from the authorities there is little incentive for the farm management to mend their ways. Polluting the river is for them the most cost effective option and I can’t see it likely that things will change without some form of legal challenge from BGCMA, Cape Nature and others. in addition I have come under personal attack from a number of quarters for raising the issue including threats to my livelihood and libelous publications on social media. Recently the Cape Piscatorial Society announced that they had “negotiated” access to the Smallblaar above the farm, what is to be known as “Bushwack Beat”, as it was offered to them by Krijn Resoort the owner of the Molapong who leases the farm. Whilst it is obviously good to have access to more water it seems somewhat questionable to be negotiating access to one piece of the stream with the very person responsible for polluting the rest of it. There is also some evidence that the lower farm situated at the Du Kloof Hotel is abstracting even more of the water from the river and with the low flows in these drought situations that further increases the temperatures of the lower portions as well as the effluent load. The wetland there, initiated by Ryan Weaver when he was manager, is sadly neglected and dysfunctional such that no real effective filtration takes place at this facility either. Thankfully I doubt there are any fish in the lower farm at this point as the conditions are simply too hot for their survival. Sadly the combination of the pollution, the build up of sediment and the drought conditions cannot be good for the stream and I have grave concerns that much of the fishing potential lower down may well be lost for ever even when the rivers hopefully fill and cool in the winter months.

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