A "musty" or "earthy" taste and odor caused by algae continue to plague Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority customers in northern Beaufort County, and officials say it's unclear how long the problem will persist.
"We thought it had been resolved (last week), but the environment changed and the algae came back," BJWSA chief operations officer Chris Petry said. "We just don't know. We could solve this thing tomorrow, or it could be weeks."
The water is safe for drinking and other normal use. However, some customers are put off by the taste and odor, which are produced by chemicals from algae in the utility's source water taken from the Savannah River, Petry said.
When those chemicals are detected, technicians treat the water with powdered activated carbon -- similar to a Brita water filter, Petry said. But during the past several weeks, technicians have had trouble finding the correct proportion of activated carbon to algae chemicals, he said.
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"The amount and type of algae can change daily," Petry said. "The conditions we face today are different than what we faced earlier this week, and could be different tomorrow. We'll adjust our mitigation efforts as changes occur in our source water."
Algae during the winter is rare, but Petry speculated that recent wild temperature swings and lots of rain might have contributed to the event.
"There is no exact science to controlling the algae," Petry said. "A lot is known about it, but it's not a sure science, and that's the sticky wicket here."
The problem only affects the Chelsea Water Treatment Plant in Okatie, which mostly serves customers in northern Beaufort County, Petry said.
BJWSA has 60,000 to 80,000 customers in those communities, which include Burton, Beaufort, Port Royal and Okatie, as well as Callawassie, Spring, St. Helena and Lady's islands. In the past two weeks, BJWSA has received nearly 100 complaints, Petry added.
BJWSA is taking additional measures this week to improve taste and odor, such as flushing lines to help rid the system of the smelly water, spokesman Matthew Brady said.
The utility also has hired Charleston environmental engineering firm Hazen and Sawyer, at a cost of about $27,000, to evaluate its source-water delivery and treatment system, Brady said.
"They're going to look at our whole system, all the way from the Savannah River to the finished product, and they're going to make recommendations," Brady said.
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.