Bulldozers, Mud and Heartache

Rietspruit Day Two – 15 December 2016

Penny writes:

I’m still reeling with shock, horror and disbelief. Disbelief primarily. Disbelief that in 2016 the construction of a housing development can cause so much environmental damage. Disbelief at the apparent lack of thought process, at the apparent lack of correct planning, at the lack of compliance to our environmental laws, at the clear lack of understanding as to how our natural water systems work, at the lack of respect for water courses, wetlands and Earth in general, as well as lack of care for the people who will one day live here… But I’m getting ahead of myself!

After our arrival at Cedara at 06h00, Doug drove us up to another small tributary arm of the Rietspruit  where a new low cost housing development is currently under construction. From our arrival there it was downhill all the way. Literally. Figuratively. A tiny hollow in the grassy slope is squeezed be.ween the outside edge of a plantation and the original village.  See map on our recce blog. Day two in yellow. 

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The drainage line that runs out of this hollow has been partially obliterated by terracing of land so that the toe of the slope all but obliterates one bank of the stream.

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The other thing the mountain of bulldozed soil has buried was a forest of Bugweed, so often seen choking our midlands water courses.

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Then there was the road under construction – running straight down the hillside! We are hoping that some storm water drainage plans will be made.

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At the foot of the hill slope, this steep road T-junctions with another road, and crosses a sewage line marked by sewage manholes – all of which are placed smack bang in the water course. It was so easy to see the route of the water course – just follow the scar left by the earthworks burying of the sewer pipeline and the protruding sewer manholes.

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Looking back up the watercourse, now filled with piles of dumped branches, it seems hard to believe that no-one else can see it.  Its called a water course / drainage line because water can flow here. Yes it is now dry. But what happens when all the pine trees on the hill slopes uphill are felled and the ground water rises and streams begin to flow again?

Add climate change predictions: increased storm events and increased storm ferocity – where will that water flow? Will it flood homes? Gouge out the now destroyed fragile water course bed? Expose the sewage pipes? Who will control the forests of bugweed, bramble and other invasives that will flourish on the disturbed land? Will there be organised refuse removal or, to add insult to injury, will the water course become the local dumping site as has happened in so many other places where there is no refuse removal? What a sad legacy for the downstream occupants.

It gets even better – two small wetlands have also been destroyed – areas that could have slowed the speed of any rushing water.

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The mottles in the soil are evidence that this was a wetland.

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It almost looks as though a ditch that has been dug through the area is an attempt to drain out the water!

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To add more insult to an ever increasing injury, a deep sewer manhole (sans lid) enabled us to see that there was water running along the system – we wondered where that came from. Then a construction worker climbed into the manhole. On re-emerging, Penz went and spoke to him – to be told that they are having a problem with water getting into the system!

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He explained to Penz that they put subsoil below the pipes to absorb the water and the pipes are plastic so they are not permeable. When Penz suggested that when the pine trees are felled and the water table rises, the problem will worsen, his response was “they are up there, and this is down here”. When Penz, unable to bottle it, burst out laughing, he got very impatient and told her she didn’t know what she was talking about.

This illustrates the need for proper environmental education of all involved in the development of human settlements.

At the lower end of the sewer line (just up from a large earth dam) we came across another surcharging manhole, this one surcharging muddy water. The houses aren’t even built, the sewers aren’t even connected, we have just gone through two summers of drought and there are already surcharges from too much ground water entering the system.

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Our team was halted by an extremely unhappy and unfriendly resident who oozed antagonism. He was so focussed on his pre-conceived ideas that he would listen to no one. First Sphiwe, then Preven, tried to reason with him to no avail – he was convinced that our sole purpose of being at the construction site was to stop the construction. His priority was purely that homes be supplied to the local people, no matter that rivers of sewage may run, or that perhaps flooding may occur.

The one thing that all this highlighted for us was just how strategically important the large, earth walled dam will become when all this construction is completed. The dam is all that will protect the lower reaches of the Rietspruit from sewage contamination originating from surcharging manholes.  The reed beds are already there, at both ends of the dam. Lets hope that they are sufficient to protect the lower reaches of the Rietspruit that borders a dairy farm, bisects Cedara and eventually joins the uMngeni River.

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Determined not to become any more depressed, nor to become the target for any angry Comrades (whom Penz had heard our aggressive interviewee summonsing by phone) we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and turning our backs on this disaster zone we headed for the next “arm” of the Rietspruit. See the map on our recce blog.

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Our shattered nerves were soothed by a visually soothing green valley of mistbelt grassland bisected by a small wandering stream and wetlands dotted with Arum lilies and tree ferns, and timber set well back from the buffer zone.  This area is a good example of a rehabilitated riparian zone – apparently in prior years the timber was planted almost to the stream banks.

p1590951  A Mini SASS test conducted just downstream of an earth walled dam resulted in a score of 5.7: Fair condition. Not surprising, considering we were just downstream of a dam, plantations and an area of offices and buildings.

p1590943 This small tributary eventually joined up at the aforementioned dam with the tributary we started on this morning. In the lower reaches, below the soon to become strategically important dam, the river has once again been historically canalised and its waters are hidden between reeds, bull rushes and flowering invasive elderberry bushes. The air abounds with the calls of sakabula, weaver and red bishop birds.

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Temperatures were beginning to soar as Doug drove us up to the fourth and last tributary arm of the Rietspruit. Passing en route a pretty, pastoral scene of the dam where yesterday we ate our lunch.

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Starting again in the far hills and meandering down through timber plantations, the western arm of the Rietspruit looked, from a distance, as though it would be a reasonable walk.

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However our illusion was shattered when we repeatedly hit either extremely steep or thickly vegetated banks that were almost impassable.

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The alternate of walking in the water was non-existent due to masses of log jams caused by wattle falling into the river – and the wattle saplings and bug weed on the banks were so densely spaced that we could not squeeze through them.

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After vainly criss-crossing the stream and hacking and stumbling on the banks we realised that staying in sight of the water was not going to happen, and so after a wobbly fence crossing,

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we made our way to the farm road on the outer edge of the wattles.

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Every now and then when we were able we would access a spot to have a look at the river.

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In sweltering heat (around 36 degrees!) with no shade, not even from the tiniest bush, we slogged on,

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passing a silted up gauging weir now home to reeds and a mass of weaver and red bishop birds.

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It was obvious that decades ago this was the point where the stream had arrived at what is today known as the Cedara Flats. The place where the water’s flow would have slowed as it hit the plain that was the start of a vast wetland. Today the river is canalised – evidence of the damaging agricultural practices of yesteryear when it was common to drain wetlands.

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Doug arrived bearing gifts of icy cold drinks and while we had a welcome break, Preven was interviewed by Sphiwe and Nombuso of DUZI Productions.

p1600113  Not even able to see the water in the canal we plodded on, eternally grateful when the day came to an end at the confluence with the section that we had completed yesterday.

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Unfortunately, we were only able to do one MiniSASS today as all other suitable Mini SASS sites were totally buried in piles of dead wattle tree branches.

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About Nikki Brighton

I live in a Magic Cottage near the mist-belt forest with my African dog, Dizzy. We enjoy long walks in the fields to gather wild greens, sitting on the verandah with a pot of tea, and harvesting vegetables outside the kitchen door.
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