The Berg River is close to my heart. Yes, I fish in it, but there’s more to it than that. I live about 100m from it in Paarl, so I walk my family and I use it and the area around it a lot. I walk the dog along its banks, I teach my children about fauna and flora (the Arboretum has all those interesting different continental sections), I canoe and SUP in it – in a way, the Berg river is to me, what the beach is for somebody living on the coast. A valuable natural resource and a way of life.
It’s valuable to a lot of people. An important and beautiful Western Cape river that Berg flows from it’s catchment in the Hottentots-Holland Mountains, east down to the Berg River Dam and then heads north through the Cape Winelands of Franschhoek, through the city of Paarl, then onto Wellington. It eventually flows west where it enters the Atlantic Ocean at Veldrift on the West Coast of the Western Cape, South Africa. It is approximately 294km long and of that, about 65% of the Berg River area is under agriculture.
It’s a river that has been through a lot of transformation since my early days of fishing there. I used to fish the headwaters for small free-rising trout much as you find on many of the well-known freestone Cape Streams. I soon learned that further downstream there were much larger trout and where the river flowed through a forest of pine trees planted by Cape Forestry, the Berg resembled an American or European river in size and shape. I then discovered sections lower down, where the Berg River dam is today, that had really good, sizeable smallmouth bass, which was where my passion for these fish grew. It was a short drive from Cape Town where I lived at the time making it accessible for short, regular day trips. It used to hold a fair population of the indigenous Witvis that I unfortunately never encountered and are now sadly extinct from this river.
The river has a small catchment area and when the winter rains ended and summer kicked in, it turned it into a trickle and wasn’t fun to fish in the hot summer months. But just below, let’s call it the catchment area where the Berg River dam inlet is today, water was let out into the river through a huge pipe connected to Theewaterskloof dam on the other side of the mountain range. It was quite an amazing sight to see, a virtually dry river bed transformed instantly into a full flowing river coming out of a pipe in the side of a mountain. This was necessary for irrigation purposes way downstream. Sadly this water was discoloured and the dry fly fishing ended until the rains came again, but nymphing for trout was still very rewarding with big fish obliging and where I was “forced” and learned to nymph for trout. Smallmouth bass fishing became more prominent in the summer temperatures too. The river also fed a trout hatchery and a fishing venue called Dewdale which was very popular for winter fly fishing in still waters with a number of attractive small dams.
This all ended when they built the Berg River Dam which flooded the whole area. But what it did do was stop the necessity of transferring the discoloured water from Theewaterskloof into the Berg River system. The water in the Berg River dam is crystal clear, so the tailwater system that was created is clear and fresh from the catchment area collected by the dam and let out through the whole of summer creating a strong flowing river year-round.
Today, I now live in Paarl, a short walk from the river. When we moved here five or so years ago, I was excited about searching for smallies just down the road from my house. But soon the clear water revealed a very healthy population of large, streamline river carp. Powerful fish, targeted in skinny water, it turned out to be an exceptional, technical fishery – a discovery that I and the other guys in the Feather’s and Fluoro crew became obsessed over. I’ve always wanted to live near a decent river and my dream had come true. We fished it regularly and if I wasn’t too busy at work I would sneak in short trips after seeing big fish feeding from the footbridge when taking my dog for a daily morning walk.
When my eldest son was old enough to fish we would pop down to the river to break the monotony of being at home on the weekends and he caught his first carp there and has become a master at catching small banded Tilapia on a stick rod and float. His younger brother has followed suit and we often pop down for a quick fish.
When I could see that the condition of the water got worse it was hard to explain to my boys that we couldn’t go down to the river. The general condition of the water always bothered me and I continually had to keep my boys from going into the water, giving them a thorough precautionary scrub afterwards in case there was anything dodgy in the water. That in itself is a sad state of affairs, when you are worrying about whether your child will get infected from a free-flowing river.
The condition of the water was something I couldn’t quite fathom because it flows through wine farms. Yes, there is agricultural runoff but what we were seeing in the Paarl section seemed like something more. I witnessed this for a few years and discussed it with the Feathers & Fluoro crew who also believed it came from the farms upstream. It was intermittent and difficult to pinpoint, but there were days when we’d be fishing and witness the water quality suddenly changing.
I started taking photos of the river and searching upstream for the source and one day I found it, an inlet that was pouring filth into the river in gallons. The sad thing was it was coming in at the top of the Paarl Arboretum which is surrounded by wine farms. What really made me take note and finally do something about it was when Andre van Wyk and I recently did a SUP trip down the river together with Milan Germishuizen from Flycastway. It was a fantastic trip, the water was clear and surprisingly clean and mostly free of litter. I was getting excited about fishing the arboretum section knowing it had plenty of fish in it, but hard to access from the bank so the SUP was going to open that up for us. But, as we came up to the inlet, I first heard and then saw it, a nightmare of dirty light brown water, full of smelly sludge pouring into the river, clouding the river downstream from the inlet. This wasn’t flowing just the week before. My desire to fish immediately left me and I felt incredibly sad at what was happening here.
A week or so later I saw a post on the Paarl Arboretum Facebook page that people were questioning the new development of the arboretum that sparked the following post and associate photos from me. Note: The names of the companies were in the original post but the Paarl Arboretum admin took them out to avoid litigation. The results from the post were tremendous, have a look at the end of this blog for a positive outcome.
Pollution in The Berg River
The Drakenstein Municipality’s plans to develop the arboretum is amazing. An amazing development, but also amazing that they doing nothing about the pollution pouring into the Berg River at the top of the arboretum all the time. What is the point of developing the area when the river it surrounds is filthy and smells terrible? Why has this not been stopped?
I have seen this often over the past 4 years and wondered why the river is so dirty and stinks so much when I walk my dog in the arboretum. My dog got violently ill one time from drinking the water and cost me a fortune. On investigation, I found the source. Filthy, dirty smelly water pouring in like a waterfall at the top of the arboretum and it makes the whole river, from this point down, smelly and dirty, never mind the health hazards to all the people that use the river in this section or the farmers irrigating from river water.
The video shown I took a couple of weeks ago showing this dirty water pouring in, it is happening right now and with it comes some form of sludge that is sticking to the rocks and plants. The river above this point is crystal clear and the rocks are free of algae. I have canoed down the river from way upstream and witnessed this change in water quality. From the pollution entry point all the way down the arboretum the water is murky and smelly. The contrast is startling.
As you can see from the photos, at the walkway bridge it often is completely unclear. I witnessed this a few years ago and went to the Arboretum Road bridge near the N1 to see if it was the same, but the water is crystal clear in comparison. I walked down the river to find the source and it was obvious. At the pollution entry point, you can clearly see the clear water coming in from upstream and the dirty water on the side coming in from the pollution inlet in comparison to the rocks covered in sludge from the pollution inlet.
Where – The pollution inlet comes in at local well-known organizations as you can see from the map. I thought they were the obvious source and was very surprised that these entities would pollute the river like this. On further investigation, I was informed by a good source that this pollution is allegedly coming from a well-known company across the road from another brand leader through a pipe that must go under their land. I have been informed that the pollution inlet has been allegedly tested by This company and found to be very acidic and to have a high E coli count. They are allegedly aware of this and rather than stopping this obvious polluting of the Berg River, they are allegedly being fined millions by Drakenstein Municipality each year which they just allegedly pay rather than paying to sort out this blatant pollution of the Berg River.
During the drought, this polluting of the river got particularly bad due to the lack of flow to dilute and hide this atrocity. The river was dredged and the pool that this pollution pores into was thick with sludge and smelled terribly of what seemed to be sewage. Someone dredged a canal to try and clear this pool and allow the polluted water to go downstream. So someone is very aware of this happening.
The article in the following link explains how pollution in the Berg River is affecting farmers, never mind the people that swim in the river or canoe daily or the people who use the arboretum. This inlet source must be a key factor in the pollution of the Berg River.
At the open day presentation of the arboretum development, the Drakenstein representative was pointing out the position where they intend on building a restaurant, I pointed out that this is exactly where the pollution inlet is. He was not aware of the pollution and asked me to write it down on the suggestion board with my details and that they would get back to me. No one has gotten back to me.
If anyone has contacts at the Drakenstein Municipality or anyone who works at the organisation ( you know who you are presumably) please do something about this. It has been going on for too long.
I will report this to the Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve (CWBR) but it amazes me that nothing has been done about it yet. END
The comments on the post were very supportive and positive. But perhaps the most amazing thing about it… was that the dirty water stopped flowing THE VERY NEXT DAY. That in itself sparks a flurry of questions – did they really not know about where their pipe went? Where was their EIA (Environmental Impact Assesment) officer? If we had not said something, would this have ever been stopped?
Lise Beyers, a journalist from Paarl Post became interested in the story and was invited to meet the CEO of one of the implicated companies. I was invited to join and in turn, I invited fellow Feathers and Fluoro crew member Leonard Flemming for his expertise in water testing and as a witness to this atrocity which we have experienced together on a number of occasions. At the same time, I received a letter via the very supportive Paarl Arboretum admin who had used some of her local contacts to make the message heard, sent to her by the Drakenstein Municipality stating that the said company had detected a leak in their system and it was possibly the source.
To cut a long story short, the meeting went well. It was made clear through city maps that the inlet is indeed a stormwater drain that could, hypothetically, be fed, maybe, from other sources… possibly. The company in question has agreed to co-operate with us and to try and locate the source. If we see any signs of the dirty water coming in, we will inform said company. We will have the water tested and we will follow and investigate the source of the dirty water.
For now, the river is flowing crystal clear once more and we know what to do if it ever happens again. If you see anything keep us informed if you experience dirty water in the Berg River around Paarl.
I guess, the bottom line is this – as tax-paying citizens we have rights; to clean water, a clean environment and to expect accountability when there is clear evidence of someone or something (a company) crossing the line whether it is inadvertent or not.
Whether or not this is one company’s fault or something bigger that involves the municipality’s infrastructure and/or other companies that have effluent running into the Berg river, remains to be seen. But what we – Paarl locals, fly anglers, dog walkers, picknickers, fans of the Arboretum or just anyone who dislikes pollution – will not do, is stand by and let it happen anymore.
We will be watching the river closely. That’s a promise.