The Rietspruit rises in the hills that fringe Cedara, Sweetwaters and Hilton, where there are many seeps and springs. There is no definitive source, a bit of a dilemma for the intrepid DUCT River Walk Team! “We realised we would need to walk all three main tributaries to get a clear idea about this river,” said team leader Penny Rees before they set off.
100 years ago, the Cedara Flats were a reed-filled wetland – no doubt where the name Rietspruit originates. Cedara Agricultural College established in 1905, drained the wetlands – a practice that was common in that era and encouraged by Government, unaware of the dire consequences compromised wetlands have on settlements further downstream.
Wetlands are natural water storage and purification works. They slow down the flow of water; store and release slowly; remove contaminants from water; and provide an extensive habitat for birds, mammals and amphibians; and have great significance in traditional cultures. It is now illegal to make new drains, however it is permitted to keep historical drainage ditches functioning.
The first tributary is invaded by thirsty invasive alien plants and has virtually disappeared – the water course is dry and surrounded by plantations. Whenever water is seen, the river is blocked with log jams created by carelessly cleared invasive trees. It is no surprise then that the first Mini SASS result shows a river in poor condition. Things improve during a stretch where invasive plants have been cleared and the banks are filled with indigenous grass and wildflowers before the stream enters the Cedara Flats (the original wetland).
The second tributary rises beside Khanya Village where new low cost houses are being constructed. The stream has been obliterated by terracing for the new houses and bulldozed piles of earth bury the forest of invasive plants in the riparian zone. To add insult to injury, the sewer pipeline has been placed right in the middle of the water course! Due to the drought and the plantations upstream, the water course is dry. Further down, through an open manhole, the Team observe water running along the pipes. Imagine once the system is operational? “We came across a couple of manholes surcharging muddy water”, comments Penny with horror, “the houses aren’t built yet, nor the sewers connected, so just imagine when they are? All the sewage will surcharge and spill out of the manholes flowing down the water course!” Sadly, two small wetlands that would have slowed the speed of rushing water and cleaned up the nutrient overload, have also been destroyed by the construction process.
The third arm of the river was once surrounded by plantation, but it has been cleared and the rehabilitated stream banks and functioning wetlands restore everyone’s spirits. The fourth and final tributary was again completely enveloped in invasive plants, with log jams making walking in the stream impossible. Valiantly, the team headed downstream towards the flood plain which must have been a vast wetland a century ago, but is now crisscrossed with drainage ditches and the river has been canalised.
With the tributary explorations complete, they head over the hill towards the confluence with the uMngeni River. Some banks are destroyed by cattle trampling. Further along, the banks become steep and there are cascades as the river begins its descent into the valley. Some beautiful old trees cling on amongst the alien plants and there is more evidence of wildlife. Not surprisingly, the Mini SASS scores improve dramatically as the river plunges over the cliff edge through natural vegetation.
Exploring the area around the Umgeni Water Resevoir and pipeline (visible from the Umgeni Valley Nature Reserve), the team finds more little waterfalls and conducts more Mini SASS tests that show this part of the river is in reasonable condition. Penny concludes “Despite the very poor conditions where the Rietspruit rises, this proves that rivers can, and do, heal if given the opportunity. We have noted on every river that we have walked, that the health of the river will improve if there is enough length without negative impact. The Rietspruit ended spectacularly – not only spectacular scenery, but with spectacularly improved, healthier river banks and less contaminated water.” The DUCT River Team would like to thank N3TC for the funding that has made the Rietspruit walk possible. Without their funding, not only the Rietspruit, but also many other Midlands River Walks would not have been undertaken, and none of the post walk rejuvenation work and various other positive spin-offs would have happened. Thank you for your continued support.
Learn more about the River Walkers, read the entire story and see all the pictures at: www.umngeniriverwalks.wordpress.com