More tests done for bad Augusta water

City taking steps after Sunday report in The Chronicle

Augusta officials on Monday widened their scrutiny of water quality in downtown areas identified in an Augusta Chronicle analysis as having elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria.

"Sampling began today to track the source of the readings in Beaverdam Ditch at Laney-Walker," said Garrett Weiss, the manager of the Augusta Engineering Department's Stormwater & Environmental Section.

"We will also be collecting samples tomorrow morning to begin tracking down the source of high concentrations in the Olde Town area," he said.

The contamination came to light as part of a project published Sunday, in which The Chronicle tested water samples from 50 locations in Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties.

Fecal coliform bacteria indicates the possible presence of pathogens. E. coli in particular is an indicator of fecal contamination because it is associated with warm-blooded animal wastes. Their presence does not necessarily mean pathogens are present, but it indicates a potential risk to human health.

High bacteria levels found in the Augusta Canal's third level and in Beaverdam Ditch near Laney-Walker Boulevard highlight a common problem with sewers and storm drains that city officials have been studying for some time -- and are moving to correct, Weiss said.

"The problems in the Beaverdam area we've known about, and we're finally getting some action," he said, adding that the high levels are likely linked to old, hidden sewer lines not properly linked to sanitary sewer systems.

"That area has ancient infrastructure," he said. "We know where it's coming out, but we don't know where it's coming in because it's all underground. You have to grid it out and conduct tests street by street. It's Sherlock Holmes stuff."

Corrective action, he added, is slow and expensive, but such projects have been under way for decades and likely will continue.

Today, a new round of sampling in the Olde Town area will be undertaken by the Augusta Utilities Department, Augusta Engineering and Augusta State University.

Samples tested by the university's microbiology lab as part of the newspaper's analysis showed spikes in fecal coliform bacteria near two storm drains in that area, but city officials initially were unable to duplicate those findings.

Retests late last week by the city and the university, however, both indicate elevated levels of fecal coliform -- even if there was no identifiable source.

Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier said the initial discrepancy could have been the result of differences in how the samples were processed.

"I think we delivered them to the lab without proper instructions, so they didn't do the proper dilutions," he said. "Our samples came back high this time."

Results from the newest round of tests could be available as early as Wednesday, Wiedmeier said.

Finding the source, however, could take more time. Officials found no odors in manholes or other telltale signs, he said.

As part of the new round of sampling, Augusta Riverkeeper will also draw new water samples from the deeper, fast-flowing Savannah River channel as part of an effort to gauge water quality for the Sept. 26 ESi Ironman 70.3 Augusta triathlon, in which thousands of swimmers will compete on a 1.2-mile swimming course.

"We will have good data on where the swimmers will actually be swimming," said Tonya Bonitatibus, the group's director.

Even if elevated bacteria have been found near the shoreline storm drains, water quality in the river's main channel is expected to be fine, she said.

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