Lexington County water could taste weird more often, scientists say

Midlands residents have complained for weeks about the taste and smell of the water coming out of their taps. The most common comparison drawn by social media gripers was that the water tasted “like dirt,” both at home and at local restaurants.

Local leaders have assured residents on the Lake Murray-fueled system that the water is safe to drink, but researchers have some bad news: the problem will likely crop up for years to come.

The effects of climate change are a major threat to dated infrastructure, such as water systems, throughout the United States, including in South Carolina, according to scientists. At the treatment facility on Lake Murray, climate and environmental factors can combine to create “bad water,” according to University of South Carolina professor Claudia Benitez-Nelson.

As hot days become more numerous and more intense, bodies of water become more amicable to large swaths of algae and the soil dries up. Later, heavy prolonged rain events, which are also becoming more frequent, can wreak havoc on the current filtration systems, according to Benitez-Nelson.

Heavy rains draw the crumbly, loose soil into dams and mix it into lake water. Frequent use of concrete and other impervious construction materials also means fewer surfaces are available to absorb extra water, Benitez-Nelson said.

The large quantities of water slosh around in the lake, breaking down algae and releasing organic compounds, some of which give water a metallic or soil-like taste.

“All you need is a really, really small amount of that and you can smell it,” said Benitez-Nelson, who studies the effectiveness of stormwater ponds along the South Carolina coast.

That’s probably what is bringing Lexington County residents to install home filters and buy soda instead of sweet tea at the local drive-thru. Others are unhappy about buying cases of water to use when they pay for water from local utilities.

The city of Columbia has also experienced its share of water troubles, especially with water from Lake Murray. And in August, homes near downtown Columbia had yellowish or brown water coming from the faucets because of a power outage at the Columbia Canal water treatment plant. And small water systems throughout South Carolina continue to struggle with basics, like properly sealing wells and crumbling pipes.

Part of the difficulty in fixing unpleasant water is that filtration systems have been overburdened by the levels of sediment in the untreated water, according to utility officials. It’s not so simple for these systems to remove any residual taste or smell.

“This happens all over the country at different times of the year,” said David Fuente, a USC researcher who studies global water pricing.

When leaves change, fall and decompose in New England, for example, drinking water there takes on a different flavor, he said. In hot places such as the southeastern United States, algae can be the culprit, according to Fuente, and could worsen in time.

“As the climate or weather starts to stay warmer longer, we’re more likely to have more of these algal blooms,” he said.

Fuente said municipalities and water utilities will need to continue investing in modern and effective treatment systems as conditions progress in order to eliminate the unwanted odors and tastes.

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The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control did not find a dominant or toxic algal bloom in its surveys of Lake Murray water, though blue green bacteria and green algae were present, spokesperson Laura Renwick said.

More aggressive bursts of algae, like those seen along the Florida Coast or in hundreds of lakes, can cause more harmful effects, according to Saurabh Chatterjee, who researches the human effects of changes in water quality at USC.

Chatterjee said he has also been drinking water with a “very strange smell” for the past month since he lives in Irmo, near Lake Murray.

“If you are just talking of the smell, I would say the smell is the least of the problem,” he said.

His more pressing concern is about how algae can be bad for humans exposed to its secretions. The most abundant and common toxin that algal blooms produce is microcystins, said Chatterjee. Algae’s production of the toxins ramps up when temperatures are hot, he said, and modern filtration systems aren’t yet able to remove it from drinking water.

“The chemical structure of microcystine is such that it cannot be broken down that easily,” he said. “Though we have a very strong decontamination process, it is very difficult to break down microcystins.”

Ingesting the toxins, whether by drinking water, inhaling water vapor (in the shower) or exposing oneself to toxic algal blooms by swimming, can have serious health effects in humans, according to Chatterjee.

Chatterjee’s research and other studies have shown that microcystins can cause a sore throat, liver damage, intestinal inflammation, lung infections and flu-like conditions, as well as changes to the essential gut bacteria.

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Even so, Chatterjee said there is “no need to panic” about an unusual smell or taste in drinking water — toxic algal blooms have not been identified in Lake Murray. While water utilities figure out how to address the issue, he said bottled water can provide some gustatory and psychological relief.

The town of Lexington told residents that it had increased carbon filtration capabilities at its plant to the highest levels but that it was working on finding other solutions, according to a news release. A Lexington spokesperson redirected questions about specific strategies to the city of West Columbia, which treats the water.

West Columbia’s water system serves an estimated 29,000 people, according to a report from DHEC. A spokesperson said the city was implementing a “multifaceted” plan approved by DHEC that would add extra layers of treatment to eliminate the algae byproducts.

After the most recent sanitary survey of West Columbia’s water system on June 28, 2018, DHEC rated the system satisfactory, according to documents provided to The State.

Calls and an email to the Joint Municipal Water & Sewer Commission, which is run by leadership from various Lexington County municipalities, were not returned on Friday afternoon.

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Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.