A Not So Trivial Pursuit: Pure Water
If their streams turned muddy or brackish, our tribal ancestors packed up their belongings and moved. With an importance second only to that of air, the quest for water quality is as old as thirst. A collection of medical lore written in Sanskrit 4,000 years ago is credited with the suggestion that "It is good to keep water in copper vessels, to expose it to sunlight and filter it through charcoal." Excellent advice, even today. On the walls of an Egyptian tomb dated to 1450 B.C. are the depictions of the process by which liquids are stored until solids have settled, then siphoned into another container, leaving the sediment behind. When the London cholera epidemic of 1854 was traced to a public well, water quality became an utmost importance. The value of water treatment was dramatically proven in 1892 when Altona, Germany, thanks to its filtration system, escaped the cholera epidemic that ravaged neighboring Hamburg. But until the 19th century, water quality efforts were individual. Little attempt was made to treat public water supplies until London engineer James Simpson introduced slow-sand filtration and the first large-scale treatment plant was built in 1892 to purify Thames River water. With the discovery of bacteria and the realization that specific ailments could be transmitted through water, the need for treating water soon was accepted. Chlorine was first used to disinfect water in England in 1897. Widespread use of disinfectant has drastically reduced outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever and other diseases.
When Columbia County Water Works (CCWW) began operating its distribution system in 1963, water quality test calculations were laboriously worked out by hand. Treatment was done atseveral local wells, where chloramines, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, were used as a disinfectant. Six months later, America went to war. The country ran short of ammonia and CCWW turned to the free-chlorine treatment, which it continued in present day use. Today, Columbia County processes water through its two filtration plants, delivering potable-- drinkable--water as defined by standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Georgia. More than 200 tests identify and measure compounds the Egyptians never dreamed existed. This isn't the end of a 4,000-year pursuit of pure water. Far from it. This is the threshold of an era of water refinement.
Is The Water Safe?
There's been much confusion and misinformation about the quality of the water in Georgia. Some contamination of local supplies, of wells and groundwater, has occurred, forcing local agencies to close down wells and to shift to other sources. Often that means turning to CCWW to make up the lost water supply. Water quality experts at Columbia County don't mince words. "County water is safe to drink." Columbia County Water System has no more wells, no groundwater. Its only sources are the Savannah River, Clark's Hill through the State Water Project. CCWW's water is high-quality, constantly monitored and tested to make sure it stays that way. On a wholesale basis, Columbia County provides almost 85% of the water consumed in its 350-square-mile service area, from the Richmond County/Lincoln County borders to the South Carolina state line. However, throughout the United States, the public continues to be besieged with dire headlines reporting dangerous tap water. Because water safety is such an emotional issue, the stories attract a lot of attention and arouse public concern. Certainly less fortunate people in some areas of the country have faced serious dangers from their tap water. But that is not now, nor has it been, the case with Columbia County's water. Confusion has brought increasing demand from the public to make water absolutely safe. But there's no such thing as absolute safety; there's only relative risk. On that the experts agree. Perhaps, CCWW's water could be made relatively safer. The technology exists that could virtually--not absolutely--eliminate trace substance and distill water to an almost-pure two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. And that might be safer. Why then, is that not done? The answer is cost--cost weighed against benefit. Limiting water to two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen would be no simple task. Water is a universal solvent; it will dissolve, to some extent, anything it touches. Water will even take small amounts of sodium from glass containers. The cost of removing everything from water could be a thousand times more costly than current water treatment. The County's tap water is one of the best buys in the world. Mere pennies purchase a ton of it delivered right to your kitchen. The average household uses about 330 gallons each day. If the cost rose to even a nickel a gallon that would amount to $500 per month--more than most of us are willing to pay. And that doesn't take into consideration the increased expense for producing food and manufactured goods. It's been calculated that it takes 136 gallons of water to put two eggs on the table, 100,000 gallons to manufacture an automobile. To demand that water be made as free of trace substances as today's technology would allow, would be an excessively expensive solution to a very low-risk situation. Columbia County uses the latest technology to provide the safest water possible at a reasonable cost.
The Water Guardians
Water is painstakingly collected in shiny, sterile bottles -whisked off to the laboratory, it is spun, filtered, dyed, cultured, spectrophotometered, chromatographed, subjected to dozens of tests - scientifically prodded and probed until it gives up its secrets. The job of Columbia County's water quality team is to safeguard the public health at reasonable cost to the consumer. And they take that job very seriously. Though Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) water quality standards must be met by all states, Georgia laws set restrictions that may be even stiffer, and Columbia County's own standards often are the strictest of all. Our district always has met state and local standards with flying colors. The microbiology and reservoir management staff continually monitor water in Columbia County's plants - to be certain even the slightest contaminant is noted. The chore of making certain the district's water contains no harmful bacteria requires that they examine some 3,000 water samples each year checking its water for more than 200 possible compounds. They also control algae, which poses no health risk but which can give water an unpleasant taste or odor. Whereas much of what keeps the district on the leading edge of water quality has been up-to-the- minute technology, a major contribution comes from two of man's oldest means of detection: the nose and the tongue. Our senses can be quick and surprisingly accurate in spotting substances that have managed to sneak into water in amounts as low as a few parts per trillion - if the Rose Bowl were filled with water, 10 added drops would be one part per trillion. Two members of the laboratory staff have been trained to sniff and taste water using a taste-and- odor profile originally developed for the food industry. And, state-of-the-art computers assist the continual effort to measure, monitor and guard the water.
Hazardous Waste and Public Wells
Two-thirds of the water used in Georgia originates in distant rivers and is imported via aqueducts. Most of the rest comes from underground reservoirs, and it is subterranean supplies that are most vulnerable to hazardous chemical dumping. Columbia County relies exclusively on the Savannah River and Clark's Hill. This surface source has never been seriously threatened by toxic chemical wastes. Concentration of hazardous chemicals found in the U.S. water are reported to be at least 10 times greater in groundwater than in surface water. The EPA has classified nearly 35,000 chemical substances as potentially hazardous to human health. Until recently, no one has fully understood the hazards. Substances thought to be harmlessly discarded years ago are now beginning to show up in well water. This isn't an individual problem. It concerns everyone. In 1980 the government began requiring dangerous chemical wastes to be tracked "from cradle to grave." Anyone receiving these substances must document their use and disposal and will be held responsible if not handled properly. In 1989 the Georgia Safe Drinking Water Act became a law: This will strengthen existing regulations and make sure the safest water is being provided. And now it appears new revised federal drinking water standards are going to be even tougher. In anticipation, Columbia County has been studying other ways to treat drinking water - ways that would reduce the levels of potentially harmful disinfection byproducts. The County has looked at granular-activated carbon (GAC) and found the cost to consumers would be extremely high. More importantly, GAC is limited in its ability to prevent THM formation and it presents environmental problems associated with air pollution. CCWW's current focus is on a combination of ozone and hydrogen peroxide called PER- OXONE. Up to now, its results in laboratory tests and small-scale treatment studies have been promising. Not only has PEROXONE reduced THM levels lower than GAC filtration, but it's also a lot less expensive. So regardless of whether PEROXONE is the next step, the protection of public health will remain paramount at Columbia County.