"There was a problem in that area before, with a sanitary storm sewer connection, but they couldn't find anything this time," Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier said. "We're continuing to look for the cause, though, and we will chase it down and fix it."
The contamination came to light as part of a project by The Augusta Chronicle in which water samples from more than 50 locations in three counties are being analyzed as part of a broader story -- to be published Sunday -- on water quality and bacteriological monitoring.
Georgia's recreational water standard for fecal coliform is no more than 200 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. However, samples from the river near two storm drains -- an upper one at Fourth Street and a lower one at Forsythe Street -- were much higher.
The sample near Fourth Street yielded readings of 2,600 colonies, of which about 700 were E. coli. The Forsythe Street sample yielded 21,000 colonies, but only 100 were E. coli.
Fecal coliform bacteria indicates the possible presence of pathogens, according to Georgia's Environmental Protection Division. 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.
Frank Carl, a retired Medical College of Georgia professor and former director of Savannah Riverkeeper who teaches certification classes for bacteriological monitoring, said the high levels could present a health concern for anyone swimming in that area.
"Those are very high numbers," he said. "Personally, I wouldn't swim there until this can be corrected." Boaters, including those participating in Saturday's Paddlefest, probably have little to fear, he said.
The upcoming ESi Ironman 70.3 Augusta triathlon is scheduled for Sept. 26, with thousands of swimmers competing on a 1.2-mile course that passes both of those storm drain outfalls.
Bill Burke, the race organizer, said Ironman events are held in many locales that have storm drains, and they are rarely a concern. The swimmers, he noted, follow a swim course in the river channel and would not swim in storm drain outfalls.
Last year's Ironman event, he said, was held in the same location, with advance water-quality sampling and guidance from Carl and Savannah Riverkeeper.
"Unless Dr. Carl tells me we have something to be concerned about, then I won't be," he said, noting that this year's event will have more than 3,000 participants, and possibly as many as 3,500, making it the largest event of its kind in the world.
Carl said that sampling before last year's Ironman detected elevated bacteria levels in the same area but that the Augusta Utilities Department quickly identified the problem and corrected it.
That problem, he said, was traced to an apartment complex on East Boundary where a sanitary sewer line was clogged with fat.
"There was a storm sewer just a few feet away, and when the sanitary sewer filled up and overflowed, it ran over into the storm sewer," Carl said.
Once the source of the current high levels can be corrected, bacteria levels will subside rapidly, he said. Additional sampling will be done before the Ironman event.
Wiedmeier said city officials will try to track down the source, but noted that fecal material can also originate with any animal waste, not just human activity.
"It's always possible the source is not a sanitary sewer, but we are looking to confirm or unconfirm that," he said.
The samples taken for the newspaper project were analyzed during the weekend at Augusta State University's microbiology and genetics laboratory under the supervision of Carl and ASU biology professor Donna Wear.
Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.