Managing the flow

pebbles beach waters discoloured after downpours

by Latoya Burnham

Managing the outflow of water from drains to the ocean are not as simple as it may appear.

In fact, one coastal expert, said while there are regulations governing the kind of discharge allowed from households and businesses to flow into the sea, it is much more difficult to manage the discharge from the streets, gullies and drains.

Coastal Zone’s Deputy Director, Dr. Lorna Inniss’ explanation that there were two primary sources of discharge — point source and non-point source — came as she sought to put into perspective the experience of two visitors on Pebbles Beach late last month.

The sisters, who referred to themselves by email as Jan and Debbie, noted their distress at the sudden change from crystal clear waters to almost black due to a discharge after a downpour, while on the beach.

The two said a lifeguard on the beach explained that it was run-off from the gutters and drains in the area, but they were still at a loss as to why the flow would go unchecked, especially after hearing that swimming in the water thereafter could result in illness.

“We figured it couldn’t be oil because it wasn’t floating but we knew it wasn’t good and rushed the boys out of the sea… We have now watched our beautiful waters become horribly polluted before our very eyes and with the children out of school on summer vacation I shudder to think of just how many children and tourists will now become inexplicably ill because of a problem that should and could be fixed as a matter of urgency.

“It is our hope as two sisters who practically grew up on this beach that these photos and this story will call to action the relevant authorities including, environmental and health, immediately,” the two said in the email.

Inniss explained though that point source discharge was regulated to stop the free flow from hotels, businesses and other dwellings from polluting the sea. This, she said, was more easily monitored, because as the definition suggested it originated at a single source.

“The issue is the non-point source discharge, which is much more difficult to regulate and very difficult to deal with, and then there are some things that make it worse.

“The more hard surfaces you have as people pave their driveways and homes with hard surfaces, there is less infiltration to the aquifers and more run-off. So where the soil would normally absorb the water, it cannot happen. So it is like taking a hose and washing down the streets and everything flowing back into the ocean,” she said.

Inniss noted it was also a challenge in farming, since less farms were planting khus khus grass, where the grass would usually help hold some of the flow of water from the field, the absence of the grass meant everything now flowed into the street, along with large amounts of soil.

“So the top soil is being washed away and then you get this brown discharge that is filled with pure pollutants washing into the sea. Until agriculture regulates it…,” she trailed off indicating that that source was yet another difficult one to manage.

She said they had held such discussions with the agriculture sector before, but farmers had said it was difficult to get the tractors and other equipment into the fields and able to manoeuvre freely with so much khus khus grass around.

Coastal Zone, she added, was at the point now of looking at the Coastal Risk Assessment Programme that would hold recommendations for the island going forward for the next five years, and this was likely to be one of the topics broached.

She noted though that because the Environmental Protection Department handled the monitoring of the near shore waters, they were more often the ones that dealt intimately with such issues. Likewise, the National Conservation Commission, which has responsibility for beaches, would then take cue in their dealings from that department regarding closures or any related activities.

“It usually doesn’t get that bad that you need to close beaches though,” Inniss said, adding that the last major closure of beaches as a result of flood waters contaminating the sea was after 1995 rains in which calypsonian Carew lost his life when his home was washed out to sea at Weston, St. James.

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