MILNER DAM

For the past few years the catchment dams around our town have dried up completely during the drought, leaving the town heavily dependent on water piped in from the Orange River via the Fish River. In June last year Milner Dam looked like this:

It has taken months after rain in March  – none of it heavy downpours, but all within the catchment area – for enough water to finally seep through the surrounding countryside so that it could begin filling the dam. This view of it was taken in March:

I felt such a thrill of excitement at seeing the sky reflected off the water! The water level is still very shallow and the dam is still very far from being operational once more. There is less water in it now, two months later, and even less chance of any further rain coming as winter is peeping around the corner. I am hoping though that the dam won’t dry up completely and that more water will come through along with the summer.

MILNER DAM

Many regular readers have been flummoxed by my reports of the long-lasting drought in this area; of our taps occasionally running dry; the water supply being switched off at night; and now the town’s water supply frequently being switched off every second day. If you live in an area where it rains often – some of you have even complained about getting too much rain – and where you do not think twice about watering your garden; taking a shower – or even washing your car – simply because the water is always there, then our situation must seem very strange.

Grahamstown has always suffered from a shortage of water and, over the years, various plans have been put into place to bring more water to the town. The original town nestles in a valley but with time the suburbs have crept up the hills on the west and east – and the population has increased several fold. In pre-Covid times we also have a huge influx of university students and scholars who fill the boarding houses of a number of schools.

I have mentioned that we now depend on water from the Orange River that reaches us via the Fish River. Of course it is a lot more complicated than that. Here is an explanatory excerpt from an article that appeared in our local newspaper:

[The] Eastern supply system draws water from the Orange-Fish River Inter Basin Transfer Scheme. This water has a long journey, starting at the Katse Dam in the highland mountains of Lesotho, then down the Orange River which flows into the Gariep Dam in the Free State, from there water is diverted through a long tunnel into the Fish River which is diverted to a weir and another tunnel to the Glen Melville Dam north-east of Grahamstown.

The western supply system relies exclusively on rain falling into catchments above four local dams. Jamieson and Milner Dams, two very small dams (about 12% of the total western supply) at the top of the New Year’s River catchment, are unreliable during drought and can contribute about 1ML/day.

I drive past the Jamieson and Milner dams almost every week. Both dams, next to each other, are situated on the upper reaches of the New Year’s River and would normally have a combined capacity of 830 000m³. When we arrived here thirty three years ago, both dams were filled to the brim and supplied our town with additional water. You wouldn’t recognise Jamieson as a dam in a photograph as you are more likely to mistake it as a hollow between hills. Look at the photograph of Milner Dam below and know that you are looking at the face of a drought and an aspect of a town with a water crisis: