WHILE ALL parties involved did a much better job of monitoring and reporting sewage spills into local rivers during recent rains, the occurrences serve as yet another reminder that we've got to do more to protect the precious waters flowing through the Midlands.
When rain from the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida saturated the area, it tripled the normal levels of wastewater coming into treatment plants and overwhelmed them. Columbia, Cayce and other municipal systems, as well as several systems run by private utilities, suffered line breaks and other equipment failures. The public and private sewer plant operators increased water treatment to reduce contamination, but heavy flows forced the release of large amounts of sewage treated at a lower level than usual.
Fortunately, utility operators didn't delay in notifying the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which quickly dispatched workers to assess the spills. Signs were posted warning people not to swim or use kayaks or canoes on the Saluda, Congaree and Broad rivers. It's good to know the process worked - which means that DHEC did its job, something that didn't occur nearly a year and a half ago, when there was a troublesome delay in alerting the public about a major spill at Alpine Utilities on the Saluda River.
But ongoing concerns about the state of the rivers resurfaced with the spills. Every time there's another spill on one of the Midlands' rivers, it reminds us that steps must be taken in order to prevent such incidents. That means not only upgrading sewer systems prone to fail during heavy rains - or at any other time - but also shutting some of them down by connecting them to larger ones.
There simply are too many providers releasing wastewater into the rivers. Reduce that number, and you reduce the odds of spills and put the responsibility in the hands of a few instead of many, which makes it easier to hold the operators accountable. Large providers such as Columbia and Cayce must absorb smaller plants. In addition, the cities must update aged lines and properly maintain their plants to prevent leaks.
This latest incident and the Alpine Utilities spill are just two of a number of instances that highlight the need for action. Last December, Columbia's wastewater-treatment plant was accused of dumping raw sewage into the Congaree, and a contractor of faking records to cover it up. A couple of months later, nearly 500,000 gallons of raw sewage leaked from a manhole in the Columbia system near the Broad River.
It's critical that steps be taken to keep our rivers clean not only for environmental and recreational purposes, but for economic and development reasons as well. The entire Midlands - every county and municipality as well as the University of South Carolina, private investors and citizens - is betting on the integrity of the rivers to help drive the local economy.
What are we waiting on to take more decisive steps? Yet another reminder?