CPS President Ed Herbst on the struggle between the Bain’s Kloof community and the CPS with the Bovlei farmers over the Witte River
It was a colour slide that haunted me for years.
A trout in a small Western Cape stream in water so clear that it looked as if it was hovering in mid-air.
Tom Sutcliffe took the photograph on the Amandel, (Wild Almond) a tributary of the Hex River between Worcester and De Doorns and I used to fantasise about fishing it with whatever ultralight-line rod I was using at the time.
It took several years before I was told by Basie Vosloo of Gateshead Lodges fame that he knew a farmer in the Hex River valley because they had studied agriculture together at university.
His friend produced wine for export and he took us to the edge of a vineyard, pointed and left. We stood aghast, looking at the dry stream bed baking in the hot sun, the irrigation system behind us providing mute testimony to its end.
“That’s it!” Tom shouted, almost in alarm, his finger jabbing towards a rock as big as a Wendy House. “That’s the rock that I took the photograph from.”
Our journey along the N1 back to Cape Town was subdued, not least because, on the Cape Town side of Worcester we crossed another dry river bed, the Jan du Toits, which in its mountain headwaters possesses an almost ethereal beauty.
Had we turned left and driven through the small town of Rawsonville we would have crossed another dry river bed and another victim of the wine industry’s rapacious need for water, the Smalblaar/Molenaars.
Both cease to flow kilometres before they join the Breede River as ‘tributaries’ something only occasionally realised at the height of the winter rainfall season.
In the Bain’s Kloof Pass on the R301 road that links Wellington to Ceres and Tulbagh winds a legendary brown trout stream, the Witte, where the Cape Piscatorial Society has long faced a similar dilemma.
In 1978 when I arrived in Cape Town a fabled trout named Winston imperiously cruised Breakfast Pool in the headwaters of the Witte River in the Limietburg Nature Reserve, a World Heritage site. Breakfast Pool was a favourite resting place for fly fishers headed for the upper reaches of the valley.
In April 1988, fly fishers hiking up the valley discovered that Winston and Breakfast Pool no longer existed and in the March 1989 issue of the Cape Piscatorial Society journal, Piscator, which I edited at the time, I set out the background to the demise of Winston and Breakfast Pool. It related to water extracted from the Witte River in Bain’s Kloof via an irrigation furrow called Gawie se Water. Built in 1880, it is owned by the Krommerivier Irrigation Board which, in the heat of summer diverts 99% of the flow into the valley below for use by fruit farms. The Board had, without consulting anyone, bulldozed Breakfast Pool into a broad, shallow canal which is illustrated below in a contemporary Piscator photograph.
I wrote: ‘The reason for the bulldozing was that the outer bank of the river was eroded each year and was threatening the irrigation canal which leads water to the farms on the Wellington side of Bain’s Kloof. As a result of the initiative of Society members this damage to the river received extensive newspaper and television coverage which will hopefully prevent similar desecration of such rivers in future.’
Twenty years later, on 22 July 2008, the Society’s then chairman, M C Coetzer, posted a question on the Flytalk website which summed up our continuing concerns:
In 1880 Gawie Retief completed an ambitious project on behalf of the Bovlei’s farming community: to channel water from the Witterivier across the watershed into the Kromrivier to provide irrigation water to his fellow Bovlei farmers. Today this canal in Bainskloof irrigates more than 600 ha of fertile vineyards and vine nurseries. This “river piracy” allows the Witterivier to flow into both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
I have been struggling to resolve the Witte problem for almost eighteen months now and it is virtually impossible to make any progress. Basically, the sluice gate at Gawie se Water has been forced shut. In practise it means that the entire summer flow of the river is being diverted down the side of the mountain. The Witte below this point stagnates and as such pretty much all indigenous and alien fish have disappeared.
My knowledge of the new Water Act is extremely limited but as far as I understand, water users were entitled to register their existing (as exercised) water rights usage as at 1996.
It is my understanding that, until only a few years ago, the sluice gate was manually opened and closed on a daily basis by the water users. This is no longer the case and what I need to find out is, in terms of what agreement the sluice was manually opened and closed? There should be some form of an agreement or court order. DWAF (Department of Water and Forestry) cannot find such a document.
MC Coetzer, former Cape Piscatorial Society chairman whose dogged campaign to increase the flow of the Witte below the Gawie se Water weir is being continued by Dr Leonard Flemming
Late last year this decades-old Cape Piscatorial Society concern about the Witte being deprived of water during summer came closer to resolution at a meeting between Cape Nature, the Wellington Irrigation Board and the Drakenstein Municipality. Also invited by Cape Nature as key stakeholders were Dr Leonard Flemming a scientist and successor to MC Coetzer as chairman of the Cape Piscatorial Society and Gabriella Rivera representing the residents of the Bains Kloof village at the top of the Bain’s Kloof Pass on the R301. The village had seen a massive decline in the water available to its residents as a result the Bovlei farmers diverting virtually the entire summer flow of the Witte down the Gawie se Water irrigation furrow via the weir built at what used to be Breakfast Pool.
On 26 November Leonard sent the following email to fellow committee members of the Society: ‘I attended a very successful meeting yesterday with the Wellington Irrigation Board – arranged by CapeNature and the Drakenstein Municipality. I was invited as a key stakeholder in the long, on-going issue of water abstraction taking place in the middle of beat 4 on the Witte via a furrow known as Gawie se Water. The farmers have been drawing off the full flow of the Witte since middle 1990’s (MC Coetzer can correct me if I’m wrong) and have claimed to have the right to do so.
‘Yesterday, the farmers acknowledged for the first time that they are doing harm to the Witte River downstream of the weir and that they will be heading there tomorrow morning (Friday, 27 Nov) to open the sluices ‘a bit’. CapeNature will be assisting them and an eye should be kept on it by everyone involved (including CPS members). CapeNature will also meet with the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) next week to determine the actual flow of the Witte River and to then decide how much flow may be diverted down Gawie se Water. This will serve as an interim agreement until DWA has determined the ecological reserve flow of the Witte River, which will then establish and define the long-term agreement between the farmers and the State.’
After the November meeting last year the Bovlei farmers graciously acknowledged the need of the downstream community at the Bains Kloof village and, and as a special and magnanimous concession created a hole the size of a tennis ball in the metal sluice gate.
Says Gabriella Rivera: “This tiny stream of water must cater for all the needs of the dozens of tourists who visit at the weekends as well as the permanent residents.
“The village caters for a variety of groups, religious, hikers and campers and anglers as well as permanent residents. Some families have had the houses in their families for many generations, since the pass was built!
“There is the Lutheran Retreat Centre and the UCSA (Uniting Christian Student Association) building which accommodate religious groups and the Corner Lodge B&B. They all play a role in creating tourist revenue for the area and the concomitant employment opportunities and these worthwhile endeavours are being stifled by the lack of water.”
“Our biggest concern as a community is that, in the current combination of drought and intense heat, our health could be affected.
“The lack of water (low levels) creates a danger of pollution to the river, as the Village relies on this water for drinking and recreation.
“People are swimming in the lukewarm water – dogs, kids, hikers, residents, big groups – and then it is extracted for drinking… If the river flow was normal and the Bovlei farmers allowed the ecological reserve flow – which is defined by law – then this hazardous situation would not exist”
A comprehensive article on the Witte debate by Bobby Jordan of the Sunday Times published on 6 December last year can be found through a link on the blog section of the Cape Piscatorial Society website under the heading, ‘Witte controversy’.
It would be wonderful if the possibility of a new agreement was because the farmers acknowledged that they should not plunder water desperately needed to maintain the ecological health of the Witte or even the environmental health of communities living downstream of Gawie se Water. However the truth is that South Africa’s fruit export market requires farmers to comply with the standards of good practice prescribed by GLOBALG.A.P , the international system of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and the concomitant requirement of EuroGAP certification. This makes it imperative that the Bovlei farmers upgrade their fruit farming system to bring it in line with such international standards.
The wholesale extraction of the Witte River water is incompatible with the standards of sustainable farming so fruit farmers exploiting the Witte must moderate their behaviour if they are to retain such markets.
This is where pressure bought to bear by the CPS over many years finds common ground with market forces. Perhaps the time has come when farmers realise that what they are doing does not make sense and what they need to do is build a dam in the Bovlei Valley to store water during the winter rainfall season and/or to do what other farmers in the area do – buy water from the Berg River Irrigation Board. This is not a case of resorting to law or calling farmers criminals but rather a recognition that win-wins are to be found in encouraging agricultural practices that sustain the environment beyond the narrow short-term interest of the farmers. Thus continues a long history of concerned environmentalism on the part of the CPS which is detailed in my history of the Society on its website and in a recent article by Ian Cox, also on its website.
The trout and the painting
In the annals of South African dry fly streams the Witte has an almost mythical status. Dean Riphagen, in his book, The South African Fly-Fisher’s Handbook, describes a red letter day we shared there in his chapter on the G&B Low Floater which was developed on and for this stream.
A painting by Craig Bertram Smith is emblematic of the way in which the Bovlei farmers have devastated the Witte below the weir, turning it into an area virtually devoid of aquatic life. It is this situation which the Cape Piscatorial Society is trying, without support from any other angling group, to reverse.
In late 2014 Dean Riphagen decided that his gift to commemorate the 50th birthday of, Tom Lewin, his co-director in the country’s leading fly fishing shop, Frontier Fly Fishing in Johannesburg, would be a painting of Tom fishing his favourite stretch of the river. This is the aptly-named Paradise Valley section of the Witte, which is overlooked by a hut built by Cape Nature for hikers.
To assist Craig, Dean visited this section of the river to take photographs which would give the necessary downstream perspective. He was horrified by what he found in October 2014, which in the Western Cape spring, should have seen the river flowing strongly after the winter rainfall season of June, July and August.
‘At the weir the entire flow was being diverted down the Gawie se Water irrigation furrow – any flow beyond that point was subterranean.
‘When I got to the Paradise valley pool that I wanted depicted in the painting I found that, compared to the 1980s, the water level had dropped by about half a metre.
‘The water was turbid and barely flowing, there was no aquatic weed growth and when I got into the pool to take some underwater photographs I found it to be so warm that no fish could survive there.
‘The water was so low that there were rocks exposed in the middle of the river at the back of the pool that were never exposed in the 1980s.’
After: Dean Riphagen’s photographs (above) taken in October 2014 showing the Paradise Valley pool. The water temperature had been substantially raised because of the restricted flow. The historic water line can be seen on the big rock to the right of the photograph. Before the flow was taken away the small rock in the middle of the photograph was submerged
Dean says he then took some comparison shots above the weir and the contrast was startling – good flow, clear water and an abundance of aquatic plant growth.
Days on the Witte are etched in one’s memory and, thanks to the determination to speak truth to power by concerned environmentalists like MC Coetzer and Leonard Flemming, the stretch below the weir, left parched and barren for the past twenty years through aggressive agricultural water extraction, will hopefully once again be available to fly fishers in spring, summer and autumn and will once again resemble what it used to be like thirty years ago.
‘Eloquent and unafraid’
There is now a new hope that the Witte will see a resurgence in its fly fishing thanks to the activism of people like MC Coetzer, Dr Leonard Flemming and Gabriella Rivera who, in an email to me pointed out that the Witte is a World Heritage site and in a nature reserve. Of Leonard’s contribution she said: ‘He is a force to be reckoned with, he is eloquent and unafraid and I really feel it’s so great, so many parties somehow coming together now to find justice for the river! Let it be resolved soon we pray!’
Agriculture in the Western Cape is the biggest provider of jobs, contributes most to the export earnings of the province and wine estates feature high on the list of local tourist attractions. Agriculture accounts for 65% of land use in what is formally known as the Berg River Water Management Area and 54% of the water demand. No good purpose is served by fly fishers aggressively ratchetting up tension between themselves and local wine or fruit farmers or, indeed, the trout aquaculture sector without which dams like Lakenvlei, Gubu or Thrift would not provide the excellent angling that they do.
The Society will thus continue – as it has in the past – to seek common ground through a mutually-beneficial discourse and constructive engagement with all interest groups and stakeholders who share the environs where we fish.
If the Society’s hopes are realised, a new generation of fly fishers will stalk another Winston in the vicinity of the weir at the Gawie se Water irrigation furrow on the Witte River and in Paradise Valley and the efforts of caring conservationists like MC Coetzer and Dr Leonard Flemming will have been richly – and justly – rewarded.