Pollution discharges from two Saluda River sewer systems are being eliminated in a move expected to reduce the threat of contamination to the river northwest of downtown Columbia.
But discharges from at least four other plants may not be so easy to stop, regional planners say.
A nearly 20-year-old plan to eliminate discharges in the lower Saluda has proven more difficult than originally anticipated, according to the Central Midlands Council of Governments. Today, a handful of small wastewater plants continue to dump millions of gallons into the Saluda every day.
"A number of issues have come up in recent years, especially in relationship to small, private treatment facilities, that has made the implementation of this policy problematic," according to a draft report discussed this week by a Central Midlands environmental committee.
Four nonindustrial plants, one of which was responsible for a significant sewer spill in 2008, aren't close enough to major collection lines to tap into larger, regional sewer plants in Cayce and Columbia, the study says. Engineering solutions to eliminate those discharges have never been seriously considered, the study said.
A fifth plant, at Interstate 20, run by Carolina Water Service, can be tied in with a regional sewer system, but there are no plans to do so, the report said.
Central Midlands, which monitors plans for area sewer systems, released a report this week that says while progress has been made, the Columbia area has miles to go before all Saluda River sewer pipes are removed.
In the early 1990s, a Saluda River task force recommended eliminating the discharges, and Central Midlands has since supported that policy. The discharges are treated, but they are considered bad for a river so popular with the public. Its white-water rapids attract kayakers and canoeists, and the presence of trout in a river so far from the mountains makes it popular with anglers.
One of the metropolitan area's major attractions, the Saluda winds past Riverbanks Zoo, joining the Broad River near downtown Columbia to form the Congaree.
State regulators and river advocates generally say large, regional sewer systems better protect water quality than small plants do because they have more resources and money to properly treat - and monitor - discharges. Some small, private plants don't have full-time staff to operate them and at times are left unattended.
Gerrit Jobsis, a regional director with the environmental group American Rivers, said the Columbia area should redouble efforts to move all sewer discharges out of the lower Saluda.
"The Midlands community needs to come together, recognize the great value the Saluda provides and do something about this," Jobsis said. "The future is here, and it's time to make those tough decisions."
But Robin Dial, a principal with Alpine Utilities Inc., said the goal of dropping discharges from the Saluda is elusive.
"It's always seemed to me, if I can be blunt, more of a dream than a reality," said Dial, whose company was fined $25,000 by the state for the July 2008 sewer spill on a Saluda River tributary.
"It's like saying, well, we're going to do away with segregation. It didn't happen overnight. It took years."
Nonetheless, plans to eliminate discharges from two sewer plants - one run by the town of Lexington and one operated by Carolina Water Service - are well under way. Lexington's Coventry Woods plant and Carolina Water's Watergate facility are being taken off line, and some of the sewage is being diverted to Cayce's regional system. The Cayce plant discharges to the Congaree, downstream from the Saluda River.
"Consideration for the full elimination of discharges from these facilities has been incorporated into the city of Cayce's plans," the study says.
Gregory Sprouse, a planner with the council of governments, said his agency will update the study discussed Wednesday by a Central Midlands environmental committee to see if the remaining nonindustrial sewer systems can be tied in with regional sewer. The report is only the first phase of the study.
"Can it be done and what are the big, overall proposals out there that could get this done?" he said of questions that will be addressed in the final report.
In addition to Alpine's plant at Stoop Creek, the Carolina Water Service Friarsgate system, the Woodland Hills West subdivision facility and a system operated by Development Services also will be hard to tie in, the Central Midlands report said.
Dial said he's not convinced closing small wastewater plants in favor of big regional systems always is the best route to take. He said the Central Midlands study should examine problems found at large plants, versus small plants, before making a recommendation that regional sewer is always the answer to better water quality. Dial said big sewer systems, including Columbia's, have had their share of spills.
"I think it's a fair question to ask," he said. "We have to deal with the reality of the world and not the ideal world."
Dial said he would consider connecting the Alpine sewer system to regional plants in Columbia or Cayce, but someone would have to pay him to do so. He can't just give up the system for little or nothing, he said.
The July 2008 Alpine spill sent bacteria levels soaring in the Saluda above Riverbanks Zoo, a top tourist attraction. Some people who were boating on the river at the time complained of illness. State tests showed bacteria levels more than 200 times the limit for safe swimming. The spill sparked such a furor that Columbia officials held a river summit in September 2008 to examine ways to keep the lower Saluda clean.
This year, state regulators fined Alpine $25,000, saying the spill occurred from a lack of maintenance. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said the company failed to monitor the sewer discharge and did not report the spill quickly enough.
The Alpine plant serves about 5,500 homes and businesses in the St. Andrews area. It is permitted to discharge 1.7 million gallons of treated wastewater each day. In contrast, Columbia's sewer plant is permitted to release 60 million gallons per day, and Cayce's is expanding to handle 25 million gallons per day.