Getting to grips with the issue of water use licences

Newly drilled artesian borehole for municipal water supply.

Newly drilled artesian borehole for municipal water supply.

SA’s farming sector is still getting to grips with the issue of water use licences after these became a legal requirement for many businesses five years ago, according to leading engineering consultants, SRK Consulting.

“Most farms that use water for irrigation – or for watering livestock in feedlots – will be required to apply for a water use licence, in the same way as the mining and industrial sectors,” said Lindsay Shand, principal environmental geologist at SRK’s Cape Town office. “The aim of this process – driven by the National Water Act (Act No. 36 of 1998) – is to ensure that the distribution of this increasingly scarce resource is fair and sustainable.”

Obtaining legal authorisation as a water user allows farmers to strengthen the risk profile of their business, said Shand, as it may become difficult to sell or re-develop the property if the entity is not fully compliant. Without carrying out the investigations required for licencing, there is the danger of impacting negatively on neighbours and other water users, possibly leading to expensive remediation processes in the future.

Groundwater monitoring well near Picketburg.

Groundwater monitoring well near Picketburg.

She said there was still a lack of knowledge in the agricultural sector about the need for these licences, mainly because this sector was traditionally not required to hold them. Now, however, any farmer taking water from a surface water or groundwater resource, storing water, discharging effluent water, altering banks or impeding and diverting the flow of water in a watercourse falls under Section 21 of the National Water Act – depending on the volume of water involved and the present aquifer status of the quaternary catchment in which it is situated in.

The licencing process was initially hampered by long delays within the then Department of Water Affairs in getting the applications processed and licences issued. There were also numerous incidents of content errors within the issued licences, making it difficult for the water user to strictly comply.

“Fortunately, there have been better systems put in place in recent years to speed up the licencing process, so this need not deter water users from pursuing their applications,” said SRK hydrogeologist Candice Lasher.

Businesses such as wineries, food canneries and feedlots that discharge waste water – or dispose of waste in any way that may affect a water resource – are also subject to the Act, according to Desmond Visser, associate partner and principal hydrogeologist in SRK’s Cape Town office.

Visser said SRK’s specialist services can help farmers not only to comply with the licencing regulations, but also to audit their water use and understand their water use patterns in more detail – to the benefit and sustainability of their business.

“We work with clients on a range of issues such as groundwater supply, water quality assessment and dam design, deploying experts including geologists, hydrogeologists, geo-chemists, geotechnical engineers and hydro-engineers,” said Shand.

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