Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Water: we want to get it right

-Linda Jaquet -

Earlier this year, a hastily organised meeting of residents concerned about the water situation in Prince Albert, in particular water for domestic use, revealed that many residents are very concerned and frustrated about a whole range of issues:

  • the quality and safety of drinking water, now and in the long term;
  • the sustainable management and security of the town’s water resources;
  • the Municipality’s poor record of informing residents timeously about water cuts and staffing and technical problems;
  • where to address water-related queries;
  • the lack of the necessary expertise in the Municipality;

A number also took the management of the Kweekvallei Water Users Association (KWUA) to task for the unsatisfactory communication to water users about the new water pipeline and a general lack of transparency.

The Friend has now raised concerns about drinking water during long and hard discussions with the Municipal Manager, Juanita Fortuin and the Acting Technical Services Manager, Heinrich Mettler. Mettler, a civil technician experienced in water management was seconded to our Municipality by the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) last year as part of their efforts to strengthen rural municipalities to deliver services and to operate more efficiently.

Both Fortuin and Mettler acknowledged the recent difficulties and said that there was a lack of the skills needed to manage the water supply. Knowledge of the system had not been transferred properly following the retirement and resignation of people who had looked after the town’s water for many years.

Dr Ricky Murray of Groundwater Africa was contracted in 2006 to analyse Prince Albert’s water management system and make recommendations about the long-term sustainability of the town’s water supply. The Municipality later ended his services, which were funded by the Department of Water Affairs as a Masibambane Project. The skills of Johann Rissik, a local resident who worked with Dr Murray, were also lost as a result. He looked after the complicated system of boreholes, pumps and electronic monitoring and trained a municipal official, who later resigned,

The Municipality and the Kweekvallei Irrigation Board then implemented only one of Dr Murray’s recommendations, the laying of the pipeline in the furrow, the purpose of which was to save water losses along the furrow and ensure that a fair share of the savings was allocated to the Municipality. This too had been delayed for two years due to haggling in the Council. His recommendations covered modifying the boreholes’ pumping rates, upgrading borehole monitoring equipment, appointing a dedicated person to manage the town’s water resources and supply system and changing the furrow allocation schedule to provide a continuous and consistent supply of water.

Heinrich Mettler told the Friend that proper monitoring of the water supply system was not yet up to scratch and that one of the boreholes supplying water to the town had been out of commission since late last year. He confirmed that there had been unintentional mishaps:
  • the pipes had been flushed in the wrong season
  • chlorine had been incorrectly added to one of the reservoirs
  • the high-pressure reservoir adjacent to Gordon’s Koppie had over-flowed on more than one occasion
  • the contractor responsible for the pipeline, Mabungwe Civils, had stopped the water flow one day in January to work on the pipeline without informing the Municipality causing a dam to run dry and residents to be without water for 12 hours.

Mr Mettler added that high water consumption in the town during the holiday season and particularly during the recent exceptionally hot period had increased the pressure on the water management system. Mettler reassured residents that their drinking water was being properly managed and commended his new team and their predecessors for doing a good job under difficult circumstances for which they were ill prepared. He also had high praise for Jan Nel, an electrical and mechanical specialist, who for the last year or so has responded uncomplainingly to calls at all times of the night and day to repair pumps, solve problems and check the telemetry system that monitors the boreholes daily. “Jan went way beyond what was expected of him.”

Who looks after Prince Albert’s water? At the moment the buck stops with Heinrich Mettler, who heads up the new Technical Services section in the Municipality. (The Community Services Manager was previously responsible for these water services.) A water team that answers to him was appointed on 15 January this year. It is made up of Jeff Armoed, the water treatment works process controller, Reinhold Romp, the waste treatment works process controller and Eben Briessies, the data collector/lab assistant. They are all receiving intensive on the job training in their respective areas of responsibility from the Technical Assistance Centre (TAC), sponsored by Water Affairs and the DBSA.

The Municipality’s water management is now a pilot project for the TAC, which will assist at any time. Mettler is also trying to find funding to employ a groundwater specialist to assess the current water situation following the hot summer and to train the water treatment process controller.

Mettler assured the Friend that he and his team would make every effort to ensure a safe supply of water to the town and not repeat recent mishaps. They were working hard to address residents’ concerns and to comply with Water Affairs’ prestigious Blue Drop status. To get this the Municipality will have to meet stringent criteria for overall water management quality. In February, the Municipality’s compliance was 9% and Mettler is aiming at 50% compliance by end of April. The bottom line is that the water is safe but the required reporting mechanisms have not yet been met.

The Municipality will now bring out a quarterly newsletter reporting on water quality and other related issues. Residents’ telephone calls or enquiries about water-related problems will be recorded on a daily water incident sheet and dealt with systematically by the water team. At this stage, while the water team is still new on the job, Mettler requested that all queries and problems be addressed to him at the Municipality.

Mettler could not confirm that the Municipality is as yet receiving its fair share of the water flow from the new pipeline. One of the objectives of the pipeline was that saved leakage would go to the Municipality ensuring that leiwater users would receive their leiwater and the Municipality would be assured of more water. He indicated that he was in the process of installing a weir in the channel where part of the water flow is diverted to the Municipality’s balancing dam. The weir will determine volume of water. “We do know that water users are all getting more than before. Our readings higher up on the pipeline make me confident that the town has sufficient water at the moment.”

However, the Municipality has only the one balancing dam and is therefore not able to store its excess water, which overflows into the leiwater furrow and is taken by leiwater users. Mettler says that a second balancing dam and upgrading of pipes are essential. These will cost R13 million and an application for funding has been submitted to Water Affairs.

Mettler is confident of the pipeline’s ability to withstand high pressure, saying that the consulting engineer, Flip van Jaarsveld, of KV3 had tested it satisfactorily. This is essential for the recharging of the boreholes in winter and vital for filling the town’s aquifers and so boost water supply during the summer peak demand period. According to Mettler there has not been an artificial recharge test to date.

Mettler stressed that he and his team wanted to work with the community. He was open to attending community meetings and meetings of residents’ organisations to talk about issues of concern to townsfolk. He welcomed suggestions and urged residents with relevant expertise to get involved. “One way of investing in your town is to give your time,” he proposed. He also thanked the community for responding to the Municipality’s call in January to save water. Consumption had dropped noticeably after that.

Jeff Armoed, the town’s water treatment works process controller, commented that he was fully committed to his new position and its important responsibilities. “The safety of the town’s water is all consuming for me. I could not go home at night knowing that my children would have to drink water that was not safe.”

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