Four decades ago, when North Augusta needed more drinking water for an expanding population, the choice was obvious -- and close.
"We left our original groundwater springs in the early 1950s and went to the Savannah River," City Administrator Charles Martin said. "We've had no problems since."
Today, the city's 10,000-customer water system gulps 8 million gallons per day from a pipeline near Riverview Park, with plans to expand to 14 million gallons per day soon.
The river, Mr. Martin said, has served the city well, despite ever-growing demands from a variety of competing -- and sometimes conflicting -- uses.
Each day, according to Georgia and South Carolina environmental regulators, the waterway and its tributaries near Augusta take in 72 million gallons of treated municipal sewage from three counties.
That doesn't include 48 million gallons per day of treated industrial wastes with 9,000 pounds per day of nitrogen and 61,400 pounds of suspended solids -- mostly from Georgia.
South Carolina discharges -- including 150 million gallons per day of heated water from the Urquhart Steam Generating Plant in Beech Island -- are regulated by the Department of Health & Environmental Control.
Across the river, Georgia's Environmental Protection Division is the designated watchdog, regulating the sprawling chemical factories in south Richmond County and Augusta's sewage treatment facilities.
Conflicts are inevitable.
Augusta officials have long been concerned that Columbia County's Reed Creek Wastewater Plant off Stevens Creek Road empties 4.6 million gallons per day of treated sewage into the Augusta Canal.
The canal, flowing with water diverted from the river, also provides Augusta's drinking water -- 30 million gallons per day -- from a point just downstream from where Reed Creek's wastewater flows in.
Augusta has asked EPD to order Columbia County to move its wastewater outfall from the canal to the river to better protect the city's drinking water supply from accidental contamination.
"We'd like to see it moved into the river, and everybody will have their say on this," Augusta Utilities Director Max Hicks said. "EPD is the one charged with managing the river, and they have to make that decision."
At the request of Augusta Mayor Bob Young, EPD will hold a public hearing on the issue at 7 p.m. July 26 at the Columbia County Government Complex.
Discussions about Columbia County moving its sewage outfall to the river concern Mr. Martin, who wants to know more about how such a change could affect his city.
"Sometimes the line of communication does not extend across the river to Georgia," he said. "We're not always on everybody's list to advise."
One potential hazard of getting drinking water below a treated-sewage outfall is contamination from crypto sporidium, a parasite found in the fecal matter of warm-blooded mammals -- like people.
The parasite, normally removed through proper wastewater treatment, is immune to chlorine used to purify water before it is pumped to households.
However, such outbreaks are rare, and Columbia County's environmental compliance record is good, said Alan Hallum, manager of EPD's Water Protection Branch.
Using recycled sewage for drinking water has become common.
"In the Atlanta metro area, for example, on the Chattahoochee River from Buford Dam to West Point Dam, there are water intakes and wastewater discharges for 100 miles."
Billy Clayton, Columbia County's waterworks superintendent, notes that the county's sewage treatment standards are designed to protect the water in Reed Creek, a relatively small channel that feeds into the canal.
If the wastewater is of good enough quality that it doesn't affect the creek, the diluted impact on the canal would be even less, he said.
Overall, the river -- with its myriad polluted inflows -- is still the best future source for the area's drinking water, according to EPD recommendations that caution against relying too heavily on groundwater wells.
Georgia and South Carolina, meanwhile, collaborate when evaluating how much of a discharge the river can handle safely, said Marion Sadler, the South Carolina DHEC's director of industrial, agricultural and stormwater permitting.
Regulators also must consider the impact of stormwater runoff, which can add many contaminants to the river that are washed from pavement, yards and drains.
Last year, the Savannah was ranked as the nation's seventh-most polluted river by the Washington-based U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an environmental watchdog organization. The ranking was based mainly on industrial discharges that include nitrogen, also a common fertilizer.
Robert Pregulman, the organization's Georgia director, said the Savannah is unusual in that it borders two states and serves two masters.
"Government agencies have enough trouble communicating within themselves, much less with agencies from other states," he said. "But obviously, the philosophy of the administration running the state will dictate how stringent, or how loose, those regulations will be upheld."
In Georgia, for example, Gov. Roy Barnes has placed a higher priority on environmental enforcement than his predecessor, Zell Miller, Mr. Pregulman said.
"Miller was generally lax, but Gov. Barnes has made it clear that the environment is one of his top priorities, and EPD has already taken a lot tougher stance," he said.
Augusta, however, is blessed with one of the region's largest rivers -- and one whose flow is virtually guaranteed by a series of reservoirs and dams upstream, said Katherine Baer, director of headwaters conservation for the Upper Chattahoochee River Keeper, an advocacy group.
Many rivers near Atlanta are strained to even greater degrees than the Savannah, being recycled and reused over and over to provide an adequate supply, she said.
And often, the various uses can coexist peacefully.
"At this point, treatments for drinking water supply are very sophisticated," she said.
Robert Pavey covers environmental issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at 868-1222, Ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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