How Clean is Charleston Tap Water?

Tap Water
I read this week about Boston winning the 2014 “Best of the Best” in a taste test hosted by the American Water Works Association. The tap water in Boston is so clean, the city got a waiver from the EPA mandate that requires cities to filter and treat tap water, which typically involves a veritable cocktail of unpleasant chemicals dumped by the tons. My first thought was the taste of Charleston tap water – it’s ok, but sometimes a little musky, right? I couldn’t help but wondering where it comes from… and what lies beneath.

Boston used to have a reputation for dirty water (there was a song written about it!). That changed in 1985, when the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority was formed to clean up Boston Harbor and the Charles River. It spent billions to clean up the terribly polluted waterways, and also invested $131 million in land preservation to protect the land around Boston’s water sources. As a result, the city sources its water from an area surrounded by 400 acres of pristine forest, rather than dirty factories and pesticide-laden industrial farms.

Like Boston, New York City now manages its water quality by protecting the source. Known for its “champagne of tap water,” achieved by managing land to enhance water quality, The Big Apple also obtained an EPA waiver which has saved ratepayers more than $6 billion over 15 years. Instead of filtration facilities, New York works to conserve the land upstream from the water sources.

So what is Charleston doing to ensure that we have clean drinking water?

Charleston tap water sources

Goose Creek Reservoir
Goose Creek Reservoir

Sources and treatment
The primary source of drinking water in Charleston is the Bushy Park Reservoir in Berkeley County, a project built in the 1950s and connected by tunnel to the Goose Creek Reservoir. The water supply is supplemented by the Edisto River, a 1930s project that was Charleston’s primary source before the construction of Bushy Park. Deep tunnels connect both these sources directly to the Hanahan Water Treatment Plant, located on the banks of the Goose Creek Reservoir.

At the treatment plant the water is pH adjusted, mixed with aluminum sulfate to coagulate impurities which are removed through sedimentation, and then filtered through a sand and gravel mixture. The water is disinfected with chlorine and chloramine, and fluoride is added for dental health.

Hanahan Water Treatment Plant
Hanahan Water Treatment Plant

Pollutants in the Ashley/Cooper River Basin
No municipal water system is perfect, and Charleston tap water is actually better than most. In fact, Charleston Water System is a member of the Partnership for Safe Water, a voluntary program for water utilities that commit to treating water beyond what is required by regulations. In 2013, Charleston Water System celebrated its 10th year with the program.

However, population growth and land development threaten the ability of our watershed to function naturally. Toxic organic chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and pesticides like DDT are found in significant quantity in our waterways, and find their way via the food chain into both wildlife and humans. Heavy metals such as lead and mercury have also been a significant problem in South Carolina for decades.

Each year Charleston Water System issues a water quality report for the entire system – you can find those reports here:
Water Quality Reports | Charleston Water System
To request a water quality test for your home, send an email or call 843.727.6800.

Water pollution in Charleston

Lambs Phosphate Mining Facility
Lambs Phosphate Mining Facility

Phosphate Production
In the years after the Civil War, the devastated economy of Charleston was in need of a reboot. Significant discoveries of phosphate deposits, important in the mining and fertilizer industries, were discovered in Charleston’s riverbeds in the 1870s. Within a few years, half of the world’s phosphates were being produced in Charleston at more than 20 companies along the Ashley River. The industry began to decline after the earthquake of 1886, and by 1938 the phosphate industry was completely gone. Left in their wake, however, were heavily polluted factory sites along the Ashley River leaching acidic water, lead, and arsenic into the waterways; some have even been designated as U.S. EPA Superfund Sites.

Coal-fired Power Plant

Industrial Manufacturing
A number of industrial land uses have left a legacy of contamination that continue to impact our waterways. Downtown, the Old Gas Works at the Calhoun Park Superfund Site seeps free coal tar into ground water, and an estimated 19 feet of trash is buried in the Romney Street landfill. Along Shipyard Creek feeding into the Cooper River, the old Koppers wood treatment plant and Macalloy Corporation ferrochromium smelting plant are EPA Superfund Sites – chromium levels in the sediment of Shipyard Creek near the Macalloy site continue to be among the highest in the world.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that is released from industrial activity, primarily in the burning of fossil fuels, and particularly from coal-fired power plants. While the atmospheric levels of mercury are only hazardous in the immediate vicinity of the release point, the concentration accumulates greatly in soil and water. In South Carolina, most rivers and lakes are significantly contaminated with mercury – so much that DHEC issues consumption advisories to help avoid mercury poisoning when eating fish from South Carolina’s waterways.

Stormwater Runoff

Stormwater Runoff
Prior to urbanization, stormwater from rain, snow(?), and irrigation seeps into the ground where it is filtered through the soil, and replenishes the water table beneath us in a naturally occurring cycle that sustainably replenishes rivers and streams with clean, fresh water. With the expansion of hardscapes (roads, parking lots, driveways) in a city, and the accompanying storm sewer drainage system, rainwater ceases to enter the ground naturally. Instead, it flows along the hardscapes, often flooding them, and picks up surface pollutants along the way – oil, gasoline, heavy metals, trash, fertilizers, and pesticides, to name a few.
The water is prevented from seeping through the soil naturally, and is instead pumped through the city drainage system and discharged, unfiltered, directly into our waterways.
Stormwater runoff is the primary source of water pollution in the Charleston area.

What can we do?

Rain Barrel

Reduce Stormwater Runoff
Water that enters the city’s drainage system is dumped into the waterways unfiltered. Everyone can do something to reduce the amount that ends up there, and improve the level of pollutants it carries.

  • Irrigate deliberately and only when necessary. Adjust sprinklers to water only the vegetation – not the sidewalk and street – and be sure to not water after a thorough rainfall. To prevent wasteful evaporation, schedule watering in the early morning before the afternoon heat sets in.
  • Use permeable materials in your home’s hardscapes that allow water to seep naturally into the soil rather than flowing into the drainage system. Pervious paver blocks, gravel, and porous concrete allow for proper drainage and reduce or even eliminate flooding of your landscapes.
  • Install rain barrels on your gutter downspouts – this is a no-brainer. It rains, and you keep the water for irrigation and rinsing. Local stormwater programs distribute great models for a great price.
  • Plant rain gardens to catch excess water from downspouts and hardscapes. A garden with plants that are both wet- and drought-tolerant can absorb and filter excess water as a buffer system. Native plants are best suited for this purpose.
  • Install a green roof to absorb rainfall – not only do they mitigate stormwater runoff, but green roofs also help to keep the inside of the building cooler, lower its energy costs, reduce noise levels, and even extend the life of the roof.

Permable Flagstone Pavers

Avoid Polluting Your Watershed
One of the largest sources of water pollution is what enters the stormwater drainage system, and much of it is from homeowner activity – awareness and knowledge are the key solutions.

  • Fertilize your lawn and gardens naturally. Composting and other “slow” natural fertilizers are profoundly better for the health of your soil and plants, rather than poisoning the soil with nitrogen salts that kill the very microbes that naturally produce nutrients. If you must use inorganic fertilizers (we’ve all been there), more is absolutely not better – excess fertilizers are not used by your plants, and are instead wastefully washed away and lead to the proliferation of algae and nuisance plants elsewhere. The phosphorus and nitrogen salts are so toxic that their accumulation downstream results in entire dead zones with no plant or animal life.
  • Pick up the poop. No one wants to see it, especially if it’s yours, and it introduces pathogenic bacteria to the waterways. It’s gross.
  • Never pour anything into a storm drain – there are proper disposal methods for every nasty goo you can conjure, whether it be motor oil, antifreeze, paint thinners, or Aunt Edna’s foot soak solution. Storm drains empty unfiltered directly into waterways, so keep the contaminants out.

Charleston Waterkeeper

Get Involved
Whether you’re collecting water samples or voicing your concern to government, action from residents in the community have a definite impact on improving environmental quality.

  • Volunteer or join the team at Charleston Waterkeeper. Their mission is to “protect, promote, and restore the quality of Charleston’s waterways while ensuring the public’s right to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water.” Programs range from water quality monitoring throughout the Charleston Harbor watershed to patrolling areas of potential contamination – problems are reported to appropriate authorities to ensure enforcement, typically DHEC, DNR, and the US Coast Guard. To alert Charleston Waterkeeper of a potential area of interest, send an email or call 843.670.3390.
  • Become a steward of your watershed by getting involved with the Ashley Cooper Stormwater Education Consortium, a partnership between communities, universities, agencies and non-profits that work together to implement a  stormwater runoff education strategy in Charleston.
  • Attend a monthly meeting of the The Charleston Water System Board of Commissioners – they are open to the public and they welcome your input. Meetings are typically held the fourth Tuesday of every month at 9:00am in the main office at 103 St. Philip Street.


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