The Thomson-McDuffie Joint Water and Sewer Commission got some bad news last week when it was told that it would need to make significant upgrades to its water treatment and distribution facilities to meet rising Environmental Protection Agency and Environmental Protection Department standards.
"These are issues that we've been dealing with for some time, and they're issues that have been brought on by higher standards of removal, and we don't have much choice about it," said Thomson City Administrator Bob Flanders.
At the heart of the issue is the presence of chemical byproducts that are created when chlorine, which is used to rid the water of bacteria, reacts with organic matter that rests in the water source such as sticks or leaves. While the existence of these byproducts doesn't pose a significant health risk to water customers, the EPA and EPD have guidelines in place to restrict them, and local officials are doing everything they can to comply.
Several conventional methods of reducing contamination levels were attempted earlier this year, but they did not have enough of an effect. As a result, the commission will have to dig deep into its pockets to meet the federal guidelines.
"We decided it was not going to be feasible to meet these new rules using the conventional water treatment methods that have been optimized by your system," said Robin Chasman of Athens-based engineering firm Chasman & Associates, who serves as a consultant to the commission.
"There are really two basic systems that we know will do that, but these are not inexpensive. These are very expensive treatment technologies that we will have to add onto the back of your water plants."
The two options are Granular Activated Carbon and Nano Filtration, and both have their detractors. Mr. Chasman said that Granular Activated Carbon, which is a more advanced version of the water filters people have on their home faucets, will be the lesser of the two when it comes to upfront costs, but will be especially expensive on a month-to-month basis. Nano Filtration, also known as Reverse Osmosis, will cost more upfront and will eliminate 15 to 30 percent of the water supply, which will require a costly expansion to current facilities.
When the EPA and EPD paid a visit to the Thomson-McDuffie Water/Sewer System recently, they also pointed out that the county needs to do a better job of making sure water doesn't sit and become stale. That means additional pumps and other ways to circulate water will need to be implemented.
"It's clear that we're going to have to do more than what we've done," said Mr. Chasman.
He estimated that it would take all of the sales tax money attributed to water and sewer for both SPLOST III and SPLOST IV -- close to $9 million -- plus additional funds to make the circulation and decontamination upgrades, as well as necessary upgrades to both the Big Creek and Augusta Road water plants. While he didn't specifically address just how much more money it will take, when County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton alluded to saving $500,000 through various cost-cutting measures, Mr. Chasman dismissed that number as not being enough.
While the EPA and EPD will require the Thomson-McDuffie Water and Sewer System to make these changes, it doesn't mean that McDuffie is in hot water. In fact, it's quite the opposite. In its report, the EPA and EPD praised the water and sewer system commission for its efforts and the way it's addressing the various issues.
"We have gone about it and taken every effort we can to make sure that when we implement a solution to the problem that is the most economical and efficient solution for the operation of a safe water system. The water system is a community aspect that will serve us well, and we want to make sure that we're always providing the best product we can out there," said Mr. Flanders.
Officials also discussed the continued monitoring of the Thomson-McDuffie Sewer System, where things are looking a little better. Tests and inspections are still being performed to locate pipe cracks and leaks. Officials have allotted almost $2 million for repairs, which are expected to begin in August.