Perfection is reality for 126 sewage treatment plants

26 June 2014

Don’t you wish that this was the heading for an article about wastewater treatment in South Africa?  Wish again. It comes from the State of Washington in the US:

There were 126 wastewater treatment plants across the state with perfect performance in 2013, a jump from 107 the year before. There are approximately 330 wastewater treatment plants in Washington. When the award program began in 1995, only 14 treatment plants had perfect compliance. Read more »

Clean Water: Getting the message across

26 June 2014

The US state of Colorado encompasses a catchment area known as the Barr-Milton Watershed (BMW) – a catchment area that benefits from the attentions of the non-profit Barr Lake – Milton Reservoir Watershed Association. The catchment serves as a water source for both agriculture and urban use, i.e. need to accommodate often-conflicting uses in a state that is home to 50% of Colorado citizens. Read more »

Shining new light on South African rivers, estuaries and rocky shores

18 June 2014


The NMMU research team on the coast near Port Elizabeth.  Dr Miranda (left), holding the BenthoTorch, Prof Perissinotto (centre) and Jacqueline Raw (right)

A portable scientific instrument, known as the BenthoTorch (manufactured by bbe Moldaenke, Germany)  is providing a diverse group of South African aquatic scientists with the means to measure algal growth off living cells in their natural habitat.  Various algal species have adapted their nutrient uptake systems enabling them to survive in shallow water close to the shoreline, where sunlight still penetrates to the sea or river bed. This habitat is home to benthic algae, ranging from the microscopic to the enormous. Such flora play an essential role in primary production.   The ability to measure the level of algal growth, in situ, as well as the dominant groups present (the BenthoTorch can distinguish the pigment signatures of green, blue-green and diatom algae), is of enormous importance for assessing the condition and ecosystem health of streams, rivers, estuaries and coastal shorelines. Read more »

Concern grows about the impacts of hormones on aquatic ecosystems

12 June 2014

For quite  a few years now the threat of hormones and oestrogen mimicking compounds (EDCs) – entering our rivers, lakes and dams in sewage effluents – has been growing.  The topic is generally swept under some or other carpet as the implications for wastewater treatment needs (read “increased rates and taxes”) rendered it unpopular.  The scientific evidence suggests that there is cause for concern, especially in water-stressed countries.  The frightening concept of “feminized fish populations”, whispered about more frequently that many will realise – first appeared in the 1990s (see report about English sole).

These so-called “feminized” fish, first found in the late 1990s, are thought to be victims of human hormones and hormone-mimicking chemicals — flushed into the water from sewage-treatment plants, factories, storm-water drains and runoff from roads — that had made their reproductive systems go haywire. Now a King County study has found that those chemicals, which come from sources as varied as birth-control pills and plastic bottles, detergent and makeup, are more widespread in the region’s water than previously known.  The chemicals were found at very low levels, but some scientists worry that even in tiny amounts, they could mess with the sensitive reproductive systems of animals that already have plenty of challenges.

Back in 2007, impacts on lobsters were found to be somewhat different, affecting their moulting process and making them more susceptible to disease.  The controversial video entitled “The Disappearing Male” initiated a debate that was a small version of those nowadays typical of climate change.  The Bottom-Line here is that less-sophisticated wastewater treatment increases the risk of EDC build-up in our water resources.

Read more »

USA House of Representatives approves Harmful Algal Blooms Act

12 June 2014

Algal blooms impact on marine and freshwater resources worldwide (Photo: Bill Harding)

Algal blooms impact on marine and freshwater resources worldwide (Photo: Bill Harding)

Good news for research and management of noxious algae in the United States!  This week the US House of Representatives passed Bill S. 1254, which “reauthorizes the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Act.  Harmful algal blooms (HABs) occur when colonies of algae grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and birds. The bill maintains and enhances an interagency program led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which will be responsible for promoting a national strategy to help communities understand, predict, control and mitigate freshwater and marine HAB and hypoxia events; enhancing, coordinating, and assessing the activities of existing HABs and hypoxia programs; providing for development of a comprehensive research plan and action strategy, including a regional approach to understanding and responding to HAB events; and requiring an assessment and plan for Great Lakes HABs and hypoxia”. Read more »

Water water everywhere, but drinking it could kill you

2 June 2014

Dumping wastewater effluents into the environment is a dangerous but very common option (Photo: Bill Harding)

Dumping wastewater effluents into the environment is a dangerous but very common option (Photo: Bill Harding)

A while back South Africa experienced the deaths of four people who were protesting about their lack of access to drinking water  (see post here).  Now we learn of the deaths of infants due to the reported contamination of a water supply by sewage – and an inordinate amount of dithering to get it fixed immediately!  All sorts of blame being passed around, some or other official suspended for having to try and cope with failing infrastructure, so on and so forth.  This is not the first such event and it definitely won’t be the last.  Back in 2008 eighty babies reportedly died as a result of a contaminated water supply.  Did the euphemistically-named “Blue Drop report of a couple of years ago not herald to the powers that be that this type of event would probably occur again?

South Africa – and here read ‘Joe Public’, needs to take a long, hard and strategically-focussed look at the issue of water quality.  Currently the country is engaged in a process of connecting more and more households to reticulated sewage systems – that are themselves connected to wastewater treatment works that operate way below acceptable standards.  This means that pollution of our water resources simply increases and concomitantly, the effort required to treat polluted water to potable (drinkable) levels.  There have been many claims that South Africa has world-class water (whatever that means) – but most of these have been soundly refuted.  Warnings to the contrary have been around for a long time and continue today.

“Access to water” is not the same as “Access to water that may be harmful to your health”.

As reported by Africa Check Mava Scott, head of communications for the department of water affairs, told Africa Check that the department’s figures show that 96.4% of households currently have “access to piped water”.  The issue of water quality is a “separate issue”, he said. 

Wow!  The bottled water industry must LOVE this type of statement.  Unfortunately, those who may be exposed to dodgy water cannot afford most things, let alone bottled water!

Shortly after this incident, polluted water was reported in the otherwise pristine Palmiet River catchment – at Grabouw!  This is tip of the iceberg stuff – pay attention South Africa!  Public organisations such as Afriforum are taking an interest and doing their own monitoring!

Some background as to why our country is in this mess can be found here.

Can an ecosystem service approach strengthen river conservation?

2 May 2014

River Ribble, Lancashire. Image RSJ

River Ribble, Lancashire. Image RSJ

Worldwide efforts to conserve river ecosystems are failing, and new approaches for stronger conservation planning are required.  This is the underlying context of a new editorial ‘Rebalancing the philosophy of river conservation’ by Mars [Managing Aquatic Ecosystems and Water Resources under Multiple Stress] scientist Steve Ormerod in Aquatic Conservation Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.  Ormerod suggests that the ecosystem service approach can offer a valuable addition to current river conservation strategies, potentially providing convincing new arguments to help halt freshwater biodiversity loss. Read more »


6 April 2014

Unimpacted rivers and streams are increasingly threatened by the wastes of a growing population (Photo: Bill Harding)

Unimpacted rivers and streams are increasingly threatened by the wastes of a growing population (Photo: Bill Harding)

Uncontrolled enrichment of our water resources with wastewater and other pollutants is a big problem that is receiving very little attention.  This article examines some of the associated issues and the dangers of considering ‘living with the problem’, i.e. accepting it as a necessary evil rather than taking the obvious step of dealing with it.  The “Do Nothing” option, more commonly associated with protecting and conserving the environment, may seem attractive here – based on the argument that, because so much infrastructure is broken already, there is not enough money to do anything more than patch up what we have.

(This article was prepared by Bill Harding and Jeff Thornton of International Environmental Management Services Ltd., a US-registered, not-for-profit skills transfer company, specializing in water resource management.  Both are limnologists with an in-depth understanding of eutrophication and reservoir management in South Africa). Read more »

Rietvlei water quality timebomb still ticking… how much longer before it explodes …

27 March 2014

A murky future for Rietvlei? (Photo: Bill Harding)

A murky future for Rietvlei? (Photo: Bill Harding)

For quite some time now the problems of oestrogenic and other chemical compounds in Rietvlei, one of Pretoria’s potable water supply dams have been muttered about.  Too long in fact. A recent Water Research Commission report (not specifically referenced), which included the analysis of samples contributed by my recent three-year project at this dam, has now been more overt – as reported on Monday in the Pretoria East Rekord.  Actually, this should be headline news for all the Sunday dailies if we, as a country, were less focussed on toll roads, court cases and how much has been spent on the Presidents house.  Far greater sums are being wasted in the name of water resource management – and achieving very little.  The Rietvlei scenario seems to be an echo of similar issued rumoured to occur in Mpumulanga and elsewhere. Read more »

Algae and Motor Neuron Disease: Diatoms complicate the picture

30 January 2014

Diatoms - a new source of BMAA (Photo: Bill Harding)

Diatoms – a new source of BMAA (Photo: Bill Harding)

Until now we have believed that the production of beta-methyl amino alanine (BMAA), thought to be implicated with neurodegenerative brain disorders (ALS-PDC), was limited to the blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria). Since 2004 we have learnt that all species of cyanobacteria, or almost all, produce this toxic amino acid.  This finding, backed by some early research, suggested that environmental exposure to lakes or reservoirs containing cyanobacteria, or drinking water derived therefrom, may be a cause for this debilitating complex of diseases.

That was until this month (January 2014).

Beta-methyl amino alanine

Beta-methyl amino alanine

A group of researchers have demonstrated that various species of diatoms, the most prolific group of algae on the planet, also produce BMAA.  If the production of BMAA is more widely spread across the diatom genera then this finding significantly alters the level of risk of exposure thereto.  The work also demonstrates that higher organisms, eukaryotes, can produce BMAA.

Jiang and co-authors conclude, inter alia,  that:

Taken together, the data reported here give a clear answer supported by solid evidence that BMAA is not exclusively produced by cyanobacteria. As diatoms are a major bloom- forming phytoplankton in aquatic environments, the impact of this discovery suggests new bioaccumulation routes and that the risk of human exposure may have increased tremendously. 

(search this blog for several other articles on BMAA)