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Sewage on the seashore

The City has been proactive about closing beaches following reported sewage spills, but nothing done at other beaches where tests show water is highly polluted
Activists concerned City’s routine coastal water quality testing is little more than a tick-box exercise

Water quality test results from December show numerous beaches were too polluted for safe swimming, but nothing was done by the City despite other beaches having being closed during the holiday season following reported sewage spills.

At least eight beaches were closed during the December and January festive season, all after sewage spills were reported. Many of these were due to sewage pump stations not being able to pump out incoming sewage during load shedding, and after continued water quality testing for the presence of E.coli, most of the affected beaches were opened within a day or two.

Chair of the mayoral advisory committee for water quality, Alex Lansdowne, said the maximum E.coli level was 500 colony forming units (cfu) per 100ml, and as soon as tests showed E.coli was lower that this, the beach would be reopened.

However, the City takes coastal water quality samples every two weeks, and tests for the presence of enterococci, a more virulent strain of faecal bacteria. The limit for safe swimming is 200cfu of enterococci per 100ml. An examination of the City’s fortnightly coastal water quality test results over 6 – 8 and 13 – 15 December – the latest available on the City’s data portal – showed 21 of 88 coastal monitoring points had enterococci levels above 200cfu/100ml. Of these, 11 were over 1000cfu/100ml, which is the maximum number of faecal coliforms (bacteria found in sewage) allowed in treated sewage released from sewage treatment plants, according to the national department of water and sanitation. Thus it would be safer to swim in the discharge from a properly functioning sewage plant that at these beaches at the time the samples were taken.

Swimming or surfing in water with high levels of faecal coliforms can lead to gastrointestinal illness (tummy bugs) and ear, nose, and throat infections. Children and immune compromised people are particularly at risk. Of the 11 monitoring sites where pollution was above that allowed for treated sewage, eight were popular beaches, classified as recreational nodes.

These were:

  • Strand at Murray Road (1300cfu/100ml);
  • Maiden’s Cove tidal pool 1 (1986cfu/100ml);
  • Maiden’s Cove tidal pool 2 (>2419cfu/100ml);
  • Lagoon Beach, Milnerton (>2419cfu/100ml);
  • Gordon’s Bay (1553cfu/100ml);
  • Glencairn beach (1553cfu/100ml);
  • The Kom, Kommetjie (>2419cfu/100ml);
  • Long Beach, Kommetjie (1120cfu/100ml);
  • Frank’s Bay, Simon’s Town (1986cfu/100ml)

As far as can be determined, none of them, with the exception of Lagoon beach at Milnerton, which has been polluted for at least three years, had signage warning beach goers that the water was unsafe for swimming or playing in.

This is despite the City stating in response to questions: “When Environmental Health is informed of non-compliant sample results, warning signs are erected and beaches closed (if need be) in consultation with Coastal Management.”

The City stated it would follow up on records “to determine whether pollution incidents occurred at these beaches mentioned in this media enquiry”.

City prefers a trend analysis

The City stated coastal water quality was “not an absolute science” and real time water quality measures did not exist as laboratory results “take days”. Thus, in line with the National Coastal Water Quality Guidelines, coastal water quality was “an estimation of risk determined by looking at the last or previous 24 results taken over a rolling period of 365 days”. The water quality is then rated as poor, sufficient, good, or excellent.

The City calls this a trend analysis rather than the outcome of a single sample result.

“The trend analysis approach analyses long-term trends over 365 days and is a much more reliable tool to determine the overall water quality for a recreational area.”

This trend analysis, formerly available on the City of Cape Town website, has been taken off as it has the City’s Scientific Services Laboratory stopped testing for enterococci in May last year “due to the quality concerns of the agar media used in the enterococci analysis”. (It seems this was discovered after independent tests at Rietvlei found the City lab results to be skewed – Ed)

The City has “recently” appointed an external provider, A.L. Abbots & Associates, and the 365-day trend analysis is being repopulated with results. The City did not answer questions as to how long testing had been outsourced, or what the cost was.

Routine water testing a tick-box exercise

Community activist Caroline Marx, who has for years been at the forefront of the fight for the cleanup of the highly polluted Milnerton Lagoon, helped establish the Rethink the Stink NPC and Facebook group for responsible wastewater management, and sits on the mayoral advisory committee for water quality, said it appeared the coastal water quality tests were little more than “a tick-box exercise”.

Marx said there didn’t seem to be any follow-up when water quality test results showed consistently high E.coli levels at the beaches. “What action is being taken as a result?” she asked.

She said it was good that the water quality test results were publicly available, but they were highly technical in nature, and determining where the samples were taken required cross checking coordinates on a programme such as Google Earth. Additionally, the length of time it took to publish the results meant they were of little use to the public. On 30 January, the latest test results were from 15 December, making them a month-and-a-half old, whereas eThekwini Municipality was putting up posters at beaches showing the latest water quality results from three days previous, which was rapid given test results took up to two days to obtain due to the laboratory process required.

“Where is the site where visitors can look to see whether the beach is fit for swimming?”

Hidden data

Jackie Whales, chair of Friends of the River in Hout Bay, said when the Hout Bay beach was closed on 10 January after sewage pollution due to blocked stormwater pipes causing stormwater to sewage contamination, City officials were at the beach testing the water every day. “They were very good,” said Whales.

However, there have been times in the past when the Disa River estuary was more polluted than it has been this summer, but no action was taken despite it being a popular wading area for children.

She said engagement with the City had substantially improved since mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis had shaken up the water and sanitation department, but the data portal where water quality results were posted was very difficult to navigate. She said the organisation was thinking of appointing one person to sift through the relevant data and present it to them.

Senior lecturer emeritus at Stellenbosch University Department of Global Health Dr Jo Barnes  said pollution at the city beaches had “been happening for a long time” but it seems the authorities were only bringing to light pollution where they could find a connection to load shedding. But while the City has been proactive in closing beaches when load shedding led to sewage spills, the authorities had remained quiet about pollution at other beaches.

Barnes said the water quality testing limit of 2419cfu/100ml also disguised the extent of the pollution. At Maiden’s Cove tidal pool, for instance, which was popular with families and children, the City states the E.coli levels were above 2419cfu/100ml, but it could have been much, much more than that, putting people’s health at serious risk. “You have no idea what the real value is.”

While the City put up warning signs where sewage spills were reported this holiday season, such as at Dalebrook tidal pool in Kalk Bay, other beaches and tidal pools where routine samples showed high pollution levels, were not mentioned. Photo: Steve Kretzmann
While the City put up warning signs where sewage spills were reported this holiday season, such as at Dalebrook tidal pool in Kalk Bay, other beaches and tidal pools where routine samples showed high pollution levels, were not mentioned. Photo: Steve Kretzmann

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