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Klein River system is ‘broken’

The Klein River Estuary, which was recently named the fifth most important estuary in South Africa, is currently marred by dead fish and an algae bloom.

But this is a regular occurrence, says Luke Boshier, who spearheads the ReStore Klein River Estuary. “Everyone feels helpless and sad about the growing amount of fish dying in the estuary, but in truth, at this time of years this happens all over the Western Cape.”

He says, however, that the fish deaths are higher than usual. He spent a Sunday observing how the fish were dying and believes that the cause is a combination of very low oxygen (hypoxia) and warm water temperatures. “With the higher rainfall following on from the drought, more nitrates and phosphates from agricultural fertiliser made it downstream. This caused higher-than-normal eutrophication (excess food).”

He says this larger-than-usual algae bloom depletes the water oxygen and causes the zoo- and phytoplankton underneath to die. “When bacterial decomposition takes place vast amounts of oxygen are used up, suffocating the fish,” Boshier says.

Concern about the current state of the estuary has been raised on social media with many people asking why not manually breach the estuary. But, says Boshier, should the estuary be “purged”, the current state of the estuary would have a negative impact on Walker Bay and its marine life, creating a dead zone. The Overstrand Municipality’s Environmental Department confirmed there are no plans to breach the Klein River Estuary manually. Penelope Aplon, Environmental Manager at Overstrand Municipality, says breaching of the estuary mouth is determined by the Estuary Mouth Management Plan. “This plan provides specific criteria and conditions that need to be met, including water levels, to determine whether breaching is necessary. The Estuary Forums have breaching committees that assess conditions, and these specialists and advisors will decide whether the mouth needs to be opened or not.”

The Klein River Estuary was recently given a C rating in a study by the Department of Water and Sanitation to determine the resource quality objective for various important points in a river or estuary.

Bea Whittaker, Stanford resident and consultant for Aurecon Pty Ltd, who was involved in the two-and-a-half year study explains the A rating is pristine, B is where there is human and agricultural impact, C is similar to B, but with a greater impact on the system, and D is where the estuary really needs to be monitored.

“The department identified the most important estuaries and rivers as being in the Breed Gouritz area and the major catchment areas of the Southern Cape,” explains Whittaker. “During this study it emerged that the Klein River Estuary was identified as being the fifth most important in South Africa.” Whittaker explains that this is because of the Klein River Estuary’s importance as a spawning ground for fish.

She says the Department of Water and Sanitation has decided, with the input of many specialists, that by addressing the quality of the water at a certain point the river and estuary should be kept in a certain acceptable ecological condition,” explains Whittaker.

She said these conditions take into account the ecological requirements and the human, residential and agricultural requirements up to 2040.

“These categories are being gazetted at the moment, and within the next six months the quality objectives will become law. This means that the custodians of the water resource need to monitor and ensure that the quality objectives are maintained.”

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