For Columbia County residents, clean, safe drinking water comes with a simple turn of a faucet. That high-quality water doesn't just magically appear. It makes a long journey on its way to county homes and businesses.
Columbia County Water Utility recently was honored by the Georgia Association of Water Professionals as the 2008 Laboratory of the Year for keeping that water safe.
"It is very intensive," said Margaret Doss, the county Water Quality manager and former judge for the association.
The association performed an extensive audit of lab operations, including procedures, analyzing, record-keeping, chain of custody and quality assurance and control procedures.
"It is a hard award to win," Doss said.
Water for most of the county is treated and distributed through one of Georgia's largest water systems -- Columbia County Water Utility.
The average county household uses more than 300 gallons of water each day, based on an average use of 100 gallons per person per day, said Doss.
The purpose of the system, which started distributing water to residents in 1963, is twofold, Doss said. The primary purpose is to provide safe water for domestic uses, including cooking, drinking, washing and cleaning.
Fire protection is the other priority of the system. More than 5 million gallons can be stored in elevated tanks to ensure water is not in short supply when battling a blaze.
"If you don't have any water in the tanks and you have a fire, you're in trouble," Doss said.
Outdoor watering and other water uses is the last priority for Water Works employees, as those activities have the least effect on public health.
Columbia County's water utility is permitted by regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Environmental Protection Division, to withdraw up to 31 million gallons per day from the Savannah River and up to 8 million gallons from Clarks Hill Lake.
During winter months, the average daily usage hovers at about 10 million gallons per day. In the peak demand months of May and August, the system has provided upwards of 31 millions gallons per day to county residents and businesses.
The maze of pipes and booster pumps that distribute water to residents in a 350-square-mile service area includes about 450 miles of water mains, Doss said.
In addition to the elevated tanks, the system includes another 27 million gallons of storage capacity in six above-ground tanks.
Between what the two water treatment plants are capable of treating and distributing and the system's storage capacity, Doss said, more than 60 million gallons a day could be available if needed.
As the population grows, so does the demand for water. Once permits are approved, the recently-completed expansion of the Jim Blanchard Sr. Water Treatment Plant on Point Comfort Road will expand that plant's treatment capacity to 45 million gallons a day, and the county's overall capacity to 53 million gallons a day.
"We've got plenty of permitted capacity to meet today's demand," said Billy Clayton, Water Works director. "The permitted capacity we're waiting for right now is for our tomorrow."
Surface water is processed into drinking water at two treatment facilities: the Blanchard plant and the Clarks Hill Water Treatment Plant.
"We want to get out the dirt and germs," Doss said. "That's what the treatment is for, to get rid of the dirt and the germs, to make water safe to drink, to protect the public health."
Water from the river or lake is first injected with a chemical to remove iron and manganese, a coagulant to combine with dirt particles, and other chemicals to raise the pH level and disinfect the water.
The water is then pumped to large open tanks called flocculation chambers. There, water is stirred, gathering all the fine particles together into larger ones.
Once the larger particles settle to the bottom of sedimentation basins, the clear water is skimmed off the top and sent through a series of filters to catch particles that didn't settle out.
Finally, phosphate, lime and fluoride is added to the water.
The now-potable water is then sent out for distribution to residents.
"Every drop of water we treat, we have to treat it to the point where you could drink it even if you are putting it (on the lawn)," Doss said.
To ensure Columbia County's drinking water is safe, it is tested often and regulated by the EPA and EPD, said Rodney Silvey, Water Utility lab manager.
"Every two hours, (treatment plant employees) are testing that water," Silvey said. "And in between if they have a problem or think they might have a problem. But at least every two hours, they run a series, a battery of tests on that water to make sure it is just right."
In underdeveloped countries, waterborne diseases, including E. coli, cholera, typhoid, giardia and cryptosporidium pose serious risks to people as they did before water treatment and testing processes were perfected.
Milwaukee was the site of the United States' largest outbreak or waterborne disease. Water contaminated with cryptosporidium sickened 400,000 and killed more than 100 residents in the early 1990s.
Doss said no one knows why.
"They were doing everything they were supposed to be doing and they met all the water quality standards," Doss said.
In 2000, about 2,500 Walkerton, Ontario, Canada, residents became ill with E.coli after floods washed manure from a nearby field into a well that supplied the city's drinking water.
"We don't even think about waterborne diseases around here as a threat because it doesn't happen," Doss said. "And it doesn't happen because we treat our drinking water."
County drinking water is tested for chemical and biological contaminants more than 100,000 times a year. Silvey said that in addition to the two-hour testing at the plants, at least 100 samples a month are tested from the distribution system.
Chlorine and pH levels are checked and adjusted as needed.
A chemical to detect total coliform is used to indicate any pathogens, including E. coli and cholera in the water.
"The theory is that the coliform is harder to kill," Doss said. "So if you kill the coliform, you've killed everybody else, too. That is why they are an indicator organism."
A strong bleach compound is used to disinfect water and kill any organisms.
In the Savannah River basin, 17 community public water systems draw from the river for drinking water, according to EPD.
Though the river is taxed and has dropped in recent years due to drought, Doss said Columbia County's water supply is not in danger.
"That is not particularly an issue like it is in Atlanta," Doss said. "Lake Alatoona and the people who pull out of there, their intakes are on dry land.
"And they have had to run temporary piping out further to reach the water and draw it back to the plant. We have three different intakes at three different levels."
Doss said the drought does not affect the county's access to water but it does raise usage during warmer months.
The state's reaction to the drought is to mandate outdoor water usage by imposing outdoor watering restrictions.
Though water is necessary for life, it is a natural resource that is not in unlimited supply.
Doss encourages conserving water whenever possible through simple actions like using drip irrigation to decrease evaporation and aerating lawns annually to increase water absorption.
"This is one of the few industries where you make a product to sell and try to tell people not to use it," Doss said. "That's what we are trying to do, we're trying to get that per capita use down."
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