After years of wrangling over the problem of saltwater contamination in Hilton Head Island's wells, Georgia and South Carolina officials have signed an agreement calling on the states to work together to resolve the issue.
Local water officials call the agreement an important step in stopping the migration of saltwater into the Upper Floridan aquifer, an important drinking water resource for Hilton Head and coastal Georgia.
The states have agreed to share ongoing research and include each other in decision-making related to reducing water withdrawals and managing the aquifer. They will work together through the Savannah River
Committee, whose members are appointed separately by governors of both states.
Hilton Head receives about half its potable water -- almost 10 million gallons a day -- from wells deeply drilled into the underground water source.
The island has lost at least five wells to saltwater intrusion and is in danger of losing six more by 2020 if pumping continues at current levels.
Because water is a delicate financial and political issue involving significant investments and concessions, committee members previously have moved cautiously to protect their states' interests. The group was set up in part to prevent costly litigation that could delay a solution for years.
By signing this agreement, once-contentious officials appear to be moving to address an issue of growing importance, particularly since much of the Southeast is suffering through a severe drought and increasing pressures from coastal growth.
Though many goals aren't yet specific, South Carolina water officials say the commitment from Georgia is essential.
The agreement "can be read to commit Georgia to essentially working to get this problem solved," said Dean Moss, a member of the South Carolina committee and general manager of the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority, the utility that provides water to a majority of Beaufort and Jasper county residents.
That commitment is noteworthy, Moss said, because Georgia officials haven't in the past acknowledged the saltwater contamination problem as an issue Georgia needs to help solve.
"Any agreement between South Carolina and Georgia seems to be a big deal," he said. "It's a step forward -- one piece of a very complicated puzzle."
Georgia's committee chair, Carol Couch, didn't return messages left Thursday.
Over the two years the committees have met, South Carolina officials repeatedly have pressed Georgia to commit to phased reductions from the aquifer to stop the spread of saltwater contamination into more Hilton Head wells.
Georgia agreed to cap water permits in the Savannah metropolitan area and reduce withdrawals by 5 million gallons per day by the end of 2008.
South Carolina officials say that doesn't go nearly far enough to prevent further damage on Hilton Head.
Both states pitched in on a $14 million, U.S. Geological Service report released in September that said aquifer pumping must be reduced 80 to 90 percent to slow the advance of salt water.
"While there's no agreement on a solution, I think this is an important step forward -- an agreement on how we'll work together to get this thing solved," said David Baize, an official with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's Bureau of Water.