A public outcry followed the decision once again to close the Onrus lagoon for recreational use, after a sewage spillage resulted in high levels of E. coli and Enterococci bacteria.

This atmospheric photograph by Mark Jago was recently taken at sunset at Onrus Beach, a popular spot for local surfers and body boarders. The water quality of the Onrus Lagoon however has again come under the spotlight as high levels of bacteria necessitated the closure of the estuary on 11 September. Find more of Mark’s photos on Facebook and Instagram by searching for ‘Jago Photography’.

According to Ward 13 Councillor, Jean Orban, the decision by the Overberg District Municipality (ODM) to close the lagoon was not taken lightly. “There was a sewage leak into the lagoon on 19 August during a power outage. Due to the outage, the pump station was disabled and the backup generator did not kick in because of a technical fault. This led to a build-up of sewage in the system and the resultant spill,” he said.

Shortly after the high levels of bacteria were detected a notice board was erected next to the lagoon, warning members of the public of the dangers and requesting them to steer clear of the water.

According to Liezl de Villiers, Senior Environmental Manager of the Overstrand Municipality (OM), a second water sample was taken as prescribed by the legislation. “While the results of the test are awaited, the lagoon must be closed for recreational use,” she said.

But, according to the Onrus River Estuary Forum (OREF) the problem runs much deeper than just this spill.

In a statement, OREF said since its inception it had been in consultation with the municipality to address the problem. “We have repeatedly raised the alarm about shortcomings in the management of the municipal sewerage system and previous sewage leaks into the Onrus Estuary, resulting in high bacteriological test results. Responsible action by the municipality would have avoided the need to close the estuary on 11 September,” reads the statement.

But while on the face of it, the management of the estuary should be a straight-forward task, it is in reality so fraught with bureaucratic red-tape that it makes the head spin.

The management of estuaries in the Western Cape falls under the jurisdiction of the provincial government. In turn, CapeNature is the official management authority on behalf of the province, except for certain estuaries that do not fall within their mandate. In the Overstrand, the Onrus and Buffelsrivier estuaries are not managed by CapeNature.

In the case of these two estuaries, the ODM takes responsibility for their management in such a way as to protect the health of bathers, and there is a strict set of standard operating procedures for the management of sewage spillages.

At the same time, the Overstrand Municipality is responsible for the management of the sewerage network. In addition, the Worcester-based Breede-Gouritz Catchment Management Agency (BGCMA), on behalf of the national Department of Water Affairs, conducts bacteriological sampling, in addition to the testing done by the ODM. The BGCMA also undertakes a monthly chemical analysis of the waters of the Onrus River and its estuary.

It is this overlap of bureaucratic responsibilities and a lack of clear communication that allows for the spillage to hit the proverbial fan, says OREF Chair, Peter van Niekerk.

According to him, OREF has been unsuccessful in its endeavours to persuade the municipality to accept the role of responsible management authority (RMA).

“We asked the municipality a year ago to request the delegation of authority, but we have had no feedback since then. At this stage, it is unclear if the OM has a policy about accepting the RMA role,” he said.

Latest spill might have wider implications

But according to De Villiers, the OM has received a letter from the provincial government asking for them to take up the RMA position. “Unfortunately, we have had to provisionally decline the request due to a lack of capacity and funding. In our answer, we requested details on what capacity and funding the provincial government would be able to supply to the OM to take on this responsibility. We are still waiting on an answer from the provincial government,” she said.

Van Niekerk said the latest spill might have wider implications, as the level of the estuary has been very low over the past few weeks. “This means that the ocean breaks through into the lagoon at high tide and it is very possible that the contamination might have spread into the ocean. It is for reasons such as this that we need to conduct a proper study into all the factors that play a role in polluting the lagoon and the ocean. Only when we have a clear understanding of the scope of the problem will we be able to come up with effective countermeasures,” he said.

The most contentious issue, however, still remains the Onrus sewerage system and the various spills that have taken place over the years.

According to Cllr Orban, pollution levels have been low over the past two years since the new pump station was built. “Work on the sewerage system is still continuing and feedback on the status of the work will be given at the ward committee meeting,” he said.

OREF says it has expressed its disagreement with the municipality’s risk assessment for the Onrus sewerage pump station in writing. “This has now failed twice since municipal officials gave assurances that the design and maintenance of the pump station’s backup system are robust and will prevent future spillages.

“In addition, we have requested that all septic tanks which could leak and pollute the Onrus Estuary must be checked. The municipality commissioned a contractor to perform the inspections but failed to adequately supervise the work or review the outcome. When the inspection results were reviewed by the Chair he pointed out that only about half of the septic tanks had been inspected. The municipality has been repeatedly asked when the remaining tanks will be inspected, with no response,” according to the OREF statement.

And while the various government departments, organisations and stakeholders focus on their respective mandates, and the intricate web of causes and solutions is being disentangled, the users of the lagoon are left high and dry.

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