Analysis shows some water sources OK, others not fit for wading

Each week, hundreds of visitors fill their jars and jugs at the ever-flowing well on Wrightsboro Road.


If you've wondered whether it's safe to drink, don't worry: It is.

Water in other areas, however, isn't so clean -- and in some cases, not suitable for swimming or wading, according to an Augusta Chronicle analysis of samples from 50 sites in Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties.

The streams and lakes were tested for fecal coliform, a type of "indicator" bacteria that includes material from animal and human waste. Such organisms are not necessarily harmful, but their presence and density are used as indicators of potential health problems.

Georgia's standard during warmer months is no more than 200 "colony forming units" of fecal coliform per 100 milliliters of water, based on samples taken over a 30-day period.

Although the newspaper's Aug. 12 analysis used just one sample, most sites were well above the limit -- and some were into the thousands.

The highest counts were measured in a Savannah River storm drain in Olde Town and in the Augusta Canal's third level behind John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School. Both were "too numerous to count," according to results calculated at Augusta State University's microbiology lab.

Levels of 2,500 or more were found in a second Olde Town storm drain and in locations along Rae's and Crane creeks in Richmond County; and at Woodbridge subdivision lake in Columbia County.

Higher bacteria levels can increase the risk of gastroenteritis, with symptoms that include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, nausea and stomachache. They also can cause eye, ear and throat ailments.

In Richmond County, causes for elevated bacteria levels can include urban runoff, old septic tanks, pets, livestock and leaks in old sewer lines, said Garrett Weiss, the Augusta Engineering Department's environmental and stormwater manager.

Portions of three streams -- Rocky, Butler and Spirit creeks -- are already on a federal list of impaired waterways.

"That's not to say those are the only ones, but those are the only ones that are designated," he said.

Although there is still work to be done, water quality has vastly improved since the federal Clean Water Act's adoption in 1972, he said.

In 1970, only four of 19 major industries that dumped waste into the Savannah River used permitted treatment processes. Less than one-third of municipal sewage was treated at all, and the river was an unregulated dumping ground so contaminated with mercury that fishing was banned from Augusta to Savannah Harbor.

Today, many of the worst problems have been cleaned up, and city officials are working to correct or improve those that remain. Current programs include inspections and testing of numerous waterways and stormwater detention sites, Weiss said.

Billy Clayton, the director of Columbia County's Water Utility Division, said fecal coliform levels vary widely throughout the county, with heaviest levels in densely populated Martinez and Evans.

"You have to keep in mind that it can come from any warm-blooded animal -- dogs, deer, geese, even rabbits," he said. "But in the more populous areas, we usually suspect two different things: septic tanks or dogs."

Curiously high levels in Jones Creek, for example, were traced last year to a dog pen that a landowner had close to the water, he said. The pen was moved farther away, and the levels returned to normal.

The county samples fecal coliform in 14 locations, said Water Quality Manager Margaret Doss. For each quarterly monitoring round, at least four weekly samples are taken to comply with the geometric mean used by state authorities for stream classifications.

The Chronicle's one-time sampling results were higher than many averages but are consistent with levels found this time of year.

"Typically, it spikes after heavy rains, but it also inches up to higher levels during the hottest weather," she said.

The county's Reed Creek basin had some of the highest readings -- starting with Springlakes pond off Columbia Road, where a reading of 1,900 colony forming units was recorded. By the time the creek crossed Washington Road, levels had risen to 1,400 before dropping to just 300 on Stevens Creek Road near West Lake subdivision.

One of the county's most monitored areas is the portion of Reed Creek that flushes about 3 million gallons per day of effluent from the Reed Creek Wastewater Plant into the Augusta Canal -- just a few miles upstream from the city of Augusta's drinking water intakes.

Because it empties into an important drinking water source, the county is held to strict standards for that stream, Doss said. It still has varying levels of fecal coliform -- and until just recently was classified by the state as "impaired" because of those bacteria levels.

However, based on sampling averages from 2008 and 2009, the state removed the creek from its impaired list this year. The county's testing, she said, yields average samples well within the 200-cfu standard.

The Chronicle's Aug. 12 sample was taken from a waterfall near the Savannah Rapids park's new picnic pavilions and measured 800 cfu -- which Doss said was not surprising, given the hot weather.

Elsewhere in the county, high levels were recorded in Woodbridge subdivision lake in Evans, which -- like the pond in Springlakes -- has a high population of Canada geese that are known to cause spikes in fecal bacteria. The Woodbridge sample yielded 2,500 cfu -- the highest among all Columbia County sites sampled.

Swimming and recreation areas at Thurmond Lake and the upper Savannah River yielded much lower bacteria levels.

Corps of Engineers ranger Kelly Jones said samples from swim beaches are tested monthly from May to September.

"We test for fecal coliform bacteria, based on U.S. EPA recreational water quality criteria, (samples having 200 colonies or less of fecal coliform per 100 mL of water)," he said.

"Sampling protocol requires that we sample in a minimum water depth of 3 feet," Jones said.

Pollution can change with weather, rain
Special Report: Testing the water

How clean is your water? The fundamental question is difficult to answer and varies widely -- and water quality can change overnight.

The Augusta Chronicle tested the water at 50 sites in Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties. The purpose was to gauge -- at least on the date of sampling -- how much potentially unhealthy bacteria was present.

We recruited help from Augusta State University biology professor Donna Wear and the university's state-of-the art microbiology laboratory. We stocked up on supplies recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Georgia's Water Protection Branch. Others who helped included Savannah Riverkeeper director Tonya Bonitatibus and retired Medical College of Georgia professor Frank Carl, who is certified by Georgia's Environmental Protection Division to teach classes on bacteriological monitoring.

On Thursday, Aug. 12, our teams collected samples from lakes, streams and the Savannah River. This package presents not only the test results, but commentary from experts who have helped us put the bacteria levels into proper context.

-- Rob Pavey, staff writer

About bacteria in, out of water

- Bacteria are microscopic, single-celled organisms so small that 5 million could be placed on the head of a pin.

- Most bacteria are beneficial, but some varieties are pathogenic and can cause human health problems.

- Fecal coliform is a type of bacteria that originates from animal and human waste, and is used as an indicator of potential health problems.

- E. coli is a variety of fecal coliform bacteria frequently used as an indicator of possible pathogens. Its presence does not mean pathogens are present, but rather indicates a potential risk.

- Bacteria can originate from intestinal tracts of both humans and other warm-blooded animals, including pets, livestock and wildlife -- especially deer and waterfowl, such as geese.

- Human sources often include leaky sewer lines, failing septic tanks, discharges from boat toilets, wastewater treatment plants and land applications of sewage sludge.

- Urban stormwater runoff can cause fecal coliform levels to rise after heavy rains, especially in densely populated areas.

- Fecal coliform levels tend to rise to their highest levels during periods of hot weather, such as July and August.

- The higher the bacterial levels, the greater the potential health risk to humans.

- Waterborne bacteria can cause gastroenteritis, with symptoms that include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, nausea and stomachache.

- Eye, ear, nose and respiratory ailments can also be caused by high levels of certain waterborne bacteria.

Source: Adopt-A-Stream, Watershed Protection Branch, Georgia Environmental Protection Division