High bacteria levels discovered in Saluda near Riverbanks Zoo

COLUMBIA, SC Bacteria levels high enough to make people sick were found in the lower Saluda River near Riverbanks Zoo at about the same time state regulators were conducting an investigation this month of water quality problems several miles upstream.

Testing authorized by the zoo showed elevated levels of E-coli bacteria in the Saluda on five different occasions from June 7 to June 16, according to results released Wednesday by Riverbanks. The zoo discovered the bacteria after hearing that a sewage leak had occurred upstream, Riverbanks chief executive Satch Krantz said.

As a precaution, Riverbanks launched its first-ever water quality tests in the Saluda near a bridge connecting the zoo area to the attraction’s botanical gardens, Krantz said.

State regulators said Wednesday that bacteria levels are now within the amounts considered safe for swimming and recreational contact with the water near the zoo, which contains a stretch of the river popular with kayakers. The Department of Health and Environmental Control found the water within acceptable levels in the area after learning of the zoo’s findings, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Read said in an email.

Krantz said that’s good news, but the zoo will continue to sample the Saluda. He said it was disappointing to learn that the river showed elevated bacteria when his staff and consultants checked this month.

“I was stunned this was happening in a river like that,” he said. “We will continue to test that river. That horse is out of the barn. I’m not going to risk my animal collection or my employees or guests’ health.’’

The zoo pumps raw water from the river to irrigate plants, while also using it to supply ponds used by four elephants and more than 40 flamingos. It has been using river water for such purposes since 1983, Krantz said.

Krantz said the zoo has found no signs that elephants or flamingos have gotten sick, but the zoo has informed employees about the water quality concerns. Some horticulturists that come in contact with the Saluda River water are using rubber gloves, he said. The zoo is also watering plants at night as an extra precaution to avoid visitor exposure, he said.

Public drinking water at the zoo comes from a municipal water supplier. Most zoo animals drink treated water, rather than river water.

Pollution in the lower Saluda has been an issue since May 20, when a riverkeeper organization reported high bacteria at Saluda Shoals park about six miles upstream from the zoo.

On June 10, DHEC received an anonymous tip about pollution in the river and launched an investigation. By June 21, the department had issued an advisory against swimming at the park after discovering high bacteria counts the previous week in the water near a public boat launch.

DHEC said a Carolina Water Service treatment plant at Friarsgate sent poorly treated wastewater through a discharge pipe that empties near the park boat ramp. The swim advisory remained in effect Wednesday as DHEC continued to find elevated bacteria levels in wastewater from the plant, agency officials said.

The zoo’s own testing, verified by consultants, found E-coli bacteria levels near the zoo of up to six times higher than the safe swimming standard of 349 colonies per milliliter of water, records show. The highest reading occurred June 15, which is about the same time DHEC found elevated bacteria levels at Saluda Shoals Park, records show. People who swim in rivers with elevated bacteria run the risk of getting upset stomachs if they get water in their mouths. Those with open cuts can get infections if they come in contact with tainted water.

It’s difficult to say whether the Saluda Shoals pollution is connected to the readings found at the zoo. DHEC officials said the Riverbanks spikes could have resulted from stormwater that picks up bacteria as it runs off the land.

But Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler, who also tracks water quality issues on the Saluda, said he’s not ready to rule out the sewage problems from the Friarsgate plant as a source of high bacteria levels near Riverbanks Zoo. Krantz also questioned whether the upstream discharge problems contributed to the zoo’s problems.

“It’s always hard to pinpoint something to one exact spot unless you do a really intense study, but if you have got a known upstream contributor and you’re seeing downstream water quality problems, it’s not that hard to put those two together,’’ Stangler said.

Stangler said there are a string of treatment plants above the zoo, in addition to the one at Friarsgate. Among those is Carolina Water Service’s Interstate 20 plant, although recent testing has not found discharge problems.

The Saluda is considered by many to be the Columbia area’s signature river. It contains whitewater rapids and a cold-water trout fishery uncommon to central South Carolina. Regional planners have said for a quarter century that all discharges should be removed from the Saluda because of its recreational popularity and unique features.

Carolina Water Service, a utility with a history of environmental violations in South Carolina, has had little to say publicly about the discharge problems at its Friarsgate plant. The company has apologized and said it is working to fix problems at the Friarsgate sewage treatment plant.

A consultant to Utilities Inc., the parent corporation to Carolina Water, said Wednesday that the utility has launched a series of short-term and long-term solutions to resolve problems at the Friarsgate plant. One issue of concern is the condition of an effluent well that is in a “deteriorated condition’’ and needs repair, according to a letter to Utilities Inc. from the W.K. Dickson consulting firm.

“Based on discussions and evaluations to date, Utilities Inc. is presently undertaking actions to address the effluent violations, and we believe that this corrective action plan will help to bring the plant’s treated effluent back to within compliance expeditiously,’’ according to the letter from W.K. Dickson program manager Jeremy Brashears.

Pollution at Saluda Shoals has hurt some river outfitters, who have quit renting tubes. They have turned away some people who visited Columbia to float the Saluda. It also has prompted some people to look for stretches of the river without the recent pollution concerns.