Rob writes a weekly outdoors column and covers energy, environmental and nuclear issues (and lots of other topics) for the metro section. He has been an avid angler and hunter ever since he realized he had neither the aptitude nor the desire to take up golf. He has been a full-time journalist for 28 years, including 11 years as bureau chief in Columbia County. Before joining The Chronicle, he worked at newspapers in Columbia, S.C., and West Palm Beach, Fla. He has edited or authored three reference books on antique fishing tackle; and his freelance work has appeared in Field & Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal and Georgia Outdoor News. He lives in Evans.
Posted January 25, 2010 11:38 am - Updated January 25, 2010 01:30 pm

There's plenty of drinking water. But what about the sewage?

In an odd twist of fate, it appears the biggest future battle over the Savannah River might not involve what is taken out—but what goes in.

We’re talking about treated sewage generated by cities, factories, power plants—even runoff from thunderstorms that sweeps unwanted materials into our waterways.

During two day-long conferences held in Augusta and North Augusta last week, environmental regulators from both states mentioned the staggering load the Savannah River already bears in terms of its ability to safely assimilate wastewater.

That load, however, is an unequal load that might not be entirely fair. And that might someday need to be changed.

Bud Badr, state hydrologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, pointed out that Georgia now uses about 97 percent of the river’s waste assimilation capacity, leaving just 3 percent for South Carolina. That's a lopsided distribution, considering the river is supposed to be a resource shared by both states.

So what happens if, for example, South Carolina lands a big industry that requires state and federal wastewater discharge permits? Could they be denied, costing the state tax base and jobs, because existing factories across the river in Georgia are already dumping as much waste as the river can tolerate?

It is a question that will inevitably be asked. And because of new federal laws governing water quality, and the settlement of a 1994 lawsuit by the Sierra Club, the difficult question of equity might be addressed sooner, rather than later, along the Savannah River.

As part of a settlement to that lawsuit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that water in Savannah Harbor is deficient in dissolved oxygen. The agency’s proposed remedy was to limit oxygen-depleting discharges (such as municipal and industrial wastewater) 200 miles upstream, where Augusta industries and wastewater plants release millions of gallons of wastewater each day. The plan requires the development of “total maximum daily loads” for oxygen demanding pollutants from wastewater, and the recommended TMDL was—at least on paper—zero.

In theory, the EPA’s edict of zero could have forced cities to shut down wastewater programs, but such a rule was deemed unenforceable. But because the river is technically in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division has placed all wastewater permitting matters (including renewals) on hold until a new oxygen standard is adopted.

During last week’s meeting in North Augusta, Jeff deBessonet, director of water facilities permitting for the S.C. Department of Health & Environmental Control, noted that a new standard is being prepared soon. It will be very low, he said, but at least greater than zero.

If strict new standards are developed, the river’s assimilation capacity will become more precious because the volume of pollutants entering the river will decrease. If the new regulations require a reallocation of the river’s assimilation capacity, South Carolina might want to use the occasion to reserve a share for its side of the river.

Tonya Bontatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper, agreed that the waste assimilation issue is a big one that has gotten far less attention than the issue of how much water is withdrawn from the river by various cities and industries in both states. She pointed out, however, that the withdrawals will always remain very relevant to wastewater discharges.

 “There is no doubt that there is plenty of water in the river,” she said. “But if you consider that Georgia has permitted everything to a point where the river is at its capacity for pollution, you have to consider the impact of taking more water out.”

Each time an additional withdrawal is authorized, the river can lose a portion of its ability to assimilate waste. “When there is less water, you’re concentrating that pollution to a more dangerous level.”

The ultimate outcome is likely to include the use of better technology by existing and future users to reduce impacts on the river by doing a better job of treating waste and conserving water. “There is always room for industries to do a better job treating their waste,” Bontatibus said. “They could use less assimilation than they are using now.”