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Local water plants, DHEC working to keep drinking water safe

Officials eyeing algae blooms on Lake Wateree in Fairfield County

Posted: August 7, 2014 4:34 p.m.
Updated: August 8, 2014 5:00 a.m.
Provided by Johnny Deal/Bowtie Photography

With a recent scare in Toledo, Ohio, over the quality of drinking water being pulled from Lake Erie, city of Camden and some Kershaw County officials are keeping an eye on reported algae blooms on Lake Wateree.

That’s because an algae bloom created elevated levels of a toxin called microcystin in Lake Erie, causing a water crisis in Toledo, Ohio’s fourth-largest city. Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins lifted a several days-long ban on drinking water from the city’s water supply on Monday, according to the Toledo Blade. Tuesday, however, Collins told city water customers they should conserve water for the remainder of the summer because the bloom still threatens the supply, the Blade reported.

The city of Camden and Lugoff-Elgin Water Authority rely on Lake Wateree for its drinking supplies. The lake is also home to many residents and is a destination for many visitors who boat, fish and swim in the lake.

So far, officials say while there are algae blooms at points on Lake Wateree, there does not appear to be any threat to drinking water from the lake or to those enjoying the lake itself.

Residents along Lake Wateree first learned of the algae blooms on Aug. 1 when Carol Roberts, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) watershed contact for the Catawba River Basin, alerted members of the Lake Wateree Association (LWA). According to Roberts, algae blooms, or mats, have been reported in some areas of the lake.

Roberts told LWA members one specific location where a bloom has been spotted is on Wateree Creek at the end of Woodside Drive, which is located near Great Falls in Fairfield County.

“Algae blooms commonly occur in lakes, especially during the summer. Algae are microscopic plant-like organisms that occur naturally in fresh, salt and brackish water around the world,” Roberts said in an email forwarded to the C-I by the LWA.

She cautioned residents to avoid contact with any visible mats of algae and to keep their pets away from them as well.

“Some algae contain toxins that may cause a contact dermatitis and occasional blistering of the skin,” Roberts said. “These toxins are also irritants to the eyes and respiratory tract, and when ingested can cause severe gastrointestinal injury with nausea and diarrhea.”

Roberts did not indicate DHEC had detected any toxins and had not responded to a telephone inquiry by press time.

In a separate email forwarded on Wednesday, Roberts answered several questions about algae blooms. She noted that Lake Wateree is on a list of “impaired waters” due to excess nutrients and chlorophyll-a, an indicator of algae growth.

“It is likely that the recent algae blooms in some areas of the lake are caused by excess nutrients in the water combined with optimal conditions of light availability and warmer temperatures that can occur in summer,” she said.

Roberts said that DHEC has begun drafting total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) guidelines for nutrients in the lower Catawba basin, including Lake Wateree, as part of a long-term strategy for reducing nutrient levels. She said the TMDLs would apply to sources both upstream of Lake Wateree and along its shoreline -- wastewater treatment plants, agricultural runoff, stormwater discharges and fertilizer lawn applications. The limits would work toward meeting standards for total phosphorous, nitrogen and chlorophyll-a levels in Lake Wateree.

“Once TMDL reductions are in place, Lake Wateree and the other lakes in the lower Catawba basin should come into compliance with water quality standards, which will help reduce the likelihood of algae blooms,” Roberts said.

As for what’s happening right now on Lake Wateree, however, Roberts said it is not clear why the current algae bloom occurred. She also noted that DHEC has been notified of algae blooms on other South Carolina lakes.

Doug Kinard, director of DHEC’s Bureau of Water, Drinking Water Protection Division, emailed a memorandum to public water systems, including the Lugoff-Elgin Water Authority (L-EWA) and city of Camden on Monday. In that memo, Kinard spoke to many of the same points as Roberts.

However, he also said that the type of problems Toledo, Ohio, is facing come mostly from “surface water systems withdrawing from reservoirs.”

“We recommend inspecting any intakes located in lakes or other slow moving waters for the presence of algae blooms that may (be near) to the intake,” Kinard wrote in the email.

He then provided a link to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) nutrient policy data website and a page devoted to algae blooms.

A link on that page refers to the control and treatment of such toxins. L-EWA General Manager Mike Hancock said according to the EPA’s information, “Camden and Lugoff are using the best treatment methods for this contaminant.”

Hancock further pointed out that there has been no suspect algae growth anywhere near L-EWA’s intake on Lake Wateree.

“Our treatment process is already optimized to ensure high quality drinking water,” Hancock said in an email. “We bring the raw water in from the lake and mix it with powdered activated carbon (PAC). The PAC absorbs taste and odor which can result from any organic material in the lake water. This combination is then mixed with other DHEC-approved chemicals and goes into our settling basins.”

That process, Hancock said, results in flocculation -- solids binding together -- which settle out to the bottom of L-EWA’s basins to be discarded.

“The leftover water, free of nearly all suspended particles, is then injected with chlorine and sent through our filters. The filters remove any remaining contamination,” he said.

Hancock said it appears from what he’s read that phosphorous is a major contributing factor in algae growth. He noted that phosphorous is present in fertilizers used on farms, gardens and lawns; and household cleaning products.

“Wastewater plants, residents, farms and businesses along the river all play a role in preventing algae growth,” Hancock said.

David Enlow, manager of the city of Camden’s water plant said he has been in daily contact with DHEC. Enlow confirmed that a map DHEC sent of where the blooms are located shows them to be in Fairfield County near the town of Great Falls. He also said the agency believes concentrations of algae would have to be “pretty high” near a water system’s intakes before becoming concerned.

“It’s pretty clear out there,” Enlow said of where Camden draws lake water for treatment before sending on to customers.

As a precautionary measure, however, the city collected samples of both raw and treated lake water and sent them to a lab in Florida on Wednesday.

“They’re in the process of testing them now. I don’t know how long it will take for the results to come back, but I don’t suspect we’ll have any problems,” Enlow said.

He also pointed out that algae must break down before any toxins are released and that pictures he’s seen from DHEC of the algae blooms appear to show living algae.

“It looks like they’re in shallow coves and not out on the main part of the lake,” he said.

Enlow said the city of Camden’s drinking water plant is similar to the L-EWA’s and has the capability to screen out algae toxins.

In addition to algae blooms, polychlorinated biphenyl -- PCBs -- are still of concern for Lake Wateree. In early July, DHEC released a new safe fish eating advisory, updating the advisory for seven bodies of water, including both Lake Wateree and the Wateree River. For all of Lake Wateree, DHEC is advising that residents only consume one meal per week of black crappie, and only one meal per month of blue catfish, channel catfish, largemouth bass and striped bass. For fish caught along the Wateree River between Lake Wateree and the Congaree River, DHEC advises only eating one meal per month of either blue or channel catfish, and only one meal per week of bowfin (mudfish), flathead catfish and largemouth bass.


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