Georgetown drinking water flunks test

Notices are going out to 13,500 people in Georgetown that their drinking water flunked a test this month. The water tested positive for total coliform, a measure of bacteria in the water.

“We ended up with two (of 15) samples in February that came up positive,” said John Sawyer, Savannah’s director of public works and water resources. That’s just above the threshold for notification.

Despite the failed test and federally required notice, Sawyer said the water is safe and there is no need to boil water.

Subsequent testing of the original sites plus four sites around each of them within 48 hours found no coliforms. The eight wells in the Georgetown/Gateway system were found to be bacteria free. A check of the original failed samples also showed a high residual amount of chlorine.

That wouldn’t be the case with a true bacterial issue, Sawyer said. He suspects instead the problem was with the testing procedure; he fears a staffer accidentally contaminated a bottle neck or cap with their finger. But under federal law, the notification letters can’t offer this reassurance or explain the circumstances; they can only notify using language specified in the federal Safe Water Drinking Act.

Coliform bacteria are common.

“Coliform is everywhere,” Sawyer said. “It’s in the soil, water. It’s all over the place. Coliforms themselves are not necessarily dangerous and hazardous.”

But because they’re hardier than other dangerous bacteria, they’re used as an indicator. If there’s no coliform, water suppliers can be sure there’s no fecal coliform or E. coli, which can cause disease. The subsequent testing of the flunked Georgetown sites also indicated no E. coli.

The last time a Savannah-run system had a similar notice was in 2009, with the Wilmington Island and Savannah main systems showing total coliform. Then as now, no retest ever showed bacteria twice from the same source, and no illness-causing bacteria such as E. coli was ever found, but the regulatory mechanism was tripped.

In total, Savannah provides drinking water to about 200,000 people, Sawyer said.

He expects the Georgetown mailing, which will go out by the end of the week, to cost $2,000 to $4,000.

“We pride ourselves on not having anything like this happen,” said Sawyer, who lamented the timing of this incident, which came to light after he extolled the city’s stellar water record in the Sunday Savannah Morning News. “When it does, everybody goes into immediate upset stomach mode. This is what we do and we take pride in what we do.”

Georgetown residents with questions about their water or the notice can call Heath Lloyd at 912-964-0698.