Three years ago, Anderson County South Carolina won an award for having the best drinking water in the state.
It only took two years of record weather conditions to wash memories of those tall glasses of fresh, sweet-tasting water right out of our clean glasses.
The drought of 2012 left Hartwell Lake at record low levels. Sites where docks once floated were suddenly lush, green vegetation-covered mud. Those who owned lake property essentially watched their lawns shrivel as their lake front bloomed with plant life.
By the time the rainfall came, and it came in a nine-month torrent from Nov. 2012-July 2013 that more than made up for the year of drought, the lake filled far behind full stages, even reaching levels above even that which had been seen when the lake was originally filled in the 1960s.
“What resulted is the result of a confluence of odd events,” said Scott Willett, executive director of the Anderson Regional Joint Water System. “After the drought, the lake was down 10-12 feet, almost all the backchannels were dry, and where they were dry grass, other other organic material were allowed to grow.”
Added to this, throughout the winter, very little, if any lake management - other than emergency letting of water from the overfull lakes - was needed. All the lakes up and down stream were full, so they stayed full, setting the stage of trouble.
When Spring 2014 rolled around, the dogwoods were not the only thing that bloomed. In coves all around Hartwell Lake, aquarium-like growths began to flourish in three feet of water, which was just enough to allow sunlight to reach the bottom. Nourished by runoff of fertilizer, grass clippings and other organic manner which had piled up and ended up in the lake during the early rained-out attempts to plant lawns and gardens.
The growth of this organic material produced the unpleasant odor and taste in Anderson County first reported back in early May. The water contained exceptionally high levels of Geosmin and Methyl-Isoborneol (MIB), both naturally occurring compounds which are to blame for the water problems Anderson County has experienced for the past few months. These materials, the result of what is categorized as blue-green algae, seep into the water since they are not caught by filters, much like the flavor or coffee or tea seeps into water even though the tea leaves and/or grounds do not. But tests show they do not contain bacteria or other harmful substances.
Willett said the joint water system continues to do hourly testing of the water daily, and that there are no safety concerns from the current water in the system.
“Our water is safe, meeting all primary drinking water standards.” Willett said. “But we understand that taste, odor, color are the things we expect as a community, and we are going to fix that. We like having the best drinking water in South Carolina, providing high quality at low costs. That is our goal. We all live and work here in Anderson and we all want good water.”
The carbon filtration system, which was implemented the day of the intake pipe failure in late June, is already showing signs of progress. Willett said all the water at Anderson’ treatment facility is void of the unpleasant taste and odor. It is continuing to deliver this water throughout the system, while providing adequate filtration, will be the longest stage in the return of drinking water void of the earthy taste and smells.
Willett said the amount of material in the water should have now peaked and is now showing a rapid decline the the system’s drinking water. In May, the presence of geosim and MIB was staggering, coming in at 2,100 parts per trillion. Most consumers can begin to smell the material in the water at 10 parts per trillion. So reducing the amount by such a large amount is taking time. He said progress is being made by treating one area at a time, but added there is no way to give and exact time when the entire system will be 100 percent below the detectable levels.
“I hope we are going to be a lot more effect as the water from the plant propagates through the systems,” Willett said. “Systems are flushing regularly in a lot of areas and having only good water going into the system will eventually fix it.”
Willett said the rural systems should find it easier to flush systems, including holding tanks along the way, because they are largely linear systems with houses and businesses tapped on a line. The city system is networked, and due to lack of early planning and long-range patchwork of pipe systems by Duke Energy when the owned the system, and thus will take longer to flush and replace the current lines filled with the earthy water.
This raises another issue about the future of water quality in Anderson: aging infrastructure. Replacing the water infrastructure will require not only a long-range plan, but a lot of money that so far no one has been willing to allocate.
Anderson is an exceptionally large system to be served by a single water treatment plant, Willett said. When it was built 50-plus years ago, it was serving far fewer homes and businesses, and many residents still had their own wells. He said current plans involve the creation of two virtual water plants from a single plant with the goal of avoid future problems which have recently plagued the current system. This would mean a single intake failure would no longer be able to take the entire system down, since backup values are being installed to prevent the repeats of such an event.
In the meantime, if you continue to have taste and odor issues with your water, first ask your neighbors if they are having similar issues. If not, then run a shower to flush the line to your house and see if that helps the problem. If your neighbor(s) are also having water issues, contact your water system to let them know organic materials are still a problem in your area and that the lines need to be flushed.
It will take time for the water system to recover from what at least to this point has been a once in a generation problem. Until then, monitor the water at your house or business and keep the lines of communication open with your local water provider is the best tool for follow up.