Where will Beaufort County get its water over the next 50 years?

July 26, 2009 

Eric Horan, Horan Photography The Purrysburg Water Treatment plant in Jasper County is one of two plants owned by the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority. It treats water from the Savannah River, which flows in through a canal, seen at left. The river water moves to the holding ponds, seen at the top of the photo. Water is pumped to the treatment plant, lower center. Byproducts are offloaded into a concrete-lined “pool” beneath the plant. Treated water is stored in the white towers and pumped to customers. The plant currently can treat 15 million gallons of water per day. It can be expanded to 45 million gallons per day.

ERIC HORAN, HORAN PHOTOGRAPHY

With persistent drought and neighboring states threatening the supply of local water sources, the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority is assessing how it will provide water service over the next 50 years.

The authority began the project about a year ago because the Savannah River basin has been in a drought for 10 years, said general manager Dean Moss. Water levels of three South Carolina reservoirs, intended to replenish depleting supplies, have dropped each year.

Last year, levels in Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond lakes nearly reached bottom, something that hasn't happened since they were built in 1954, Moss said.

Beaufort and Jasper counties depend on the Savannah River as a primary source of drinking water.

So do others.

Savannah, for example, pumps about 70 million gallons a day from the river. The Beaufort-Jasper authority pumps about 39 million gallons a day.

Atlanta also poses a threat. Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that Georgia was illegally drawing water from a federal reservoir. Georgia faces the dire prospect of losing Atlanta's main water source for 3 million people if political leaders can't reach a solution with Alabama and Florida over rights to the reservoir within three years.

If a deal can't be made or Georgia loses rights to that reservoir, some worry the Peach State will turn to the Savannah River to serve its residents.

"We can't assume we have an unlimited supply of water in the Savannah River," Moss said at the authority's board meeting Thursday. "There's uncertainty in the levels; the future of our climate is changing, and we know we've been through 10 years of drought."

If demand remained constant through 2060, providing water would not be a problem, Moss said. But the authority predicts population growth will double the demand.

Moss said ensuring enough water for all customers over the next five decades must begin with efficiency, which could lead to building new facilities and drawing from untapped sources.

START BY SAVING WATER

The authority provides about 44 million gallons per day for its 45,000 customers in residential and light-commercial areas. It also serves the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, Naval Hospital Beaufort and Laurel Bay military housing.

It expects to add about 500 customers every year in the next few years, said authority planning director Charles Sexton.

The authority operates two water plants. An 18-mile canal from the Savannah River flows into these plants where water is treated to drinking standards and then pumped to customers.

The Chelsea plant in Okatie serves northern Beaufort County and occasionally supplements needs in Bluffton. It produces 24 million gallons per day and could be expanded to 28 million gallons per day, Sexton said.

The Purrysburg plant in Jasper County serves Hardeeville and southern Beaufort County. Sexton said this plant pumps 15 million gallons per day and could be expanded to 45 million gallons per day.

The authority plans to expand Purrysburg by 2015 or 2020, increasing capacity as demand dictates. It doesn't expect to reach full capacity until 2030 or 2040, Sexton said.

The water plants are supplemented by underground storage and wells that draw from the Upper Floridan Aquifer, Sexton said. On Hilton Head Island, a public service district built a new plant to draw water from the deeper Middle Floridan Aquifer, which is about 600 feet underground. The use of a new source has allowed the authority to save nearly 3 million gallons of water per day in production, Sexton said.

Though the authority doesn't know how many customers it will have in 2060, it expects use will increase to between 100 million and 120 million gallons per day.

Moss hopes efficiency and conservation will keep demand at the lower end of that range. He believes a series of public meetings, which will begin next month, can help him do that by getting the word out to residents.

For example, he wants to reduce irrigation demand by 15 percent by 2015. Moss said water use peaks at 4 a.m., a time when automatic sprinkler systems come on. Many residents never change their settings, he said.

Systems set up to deliver the maximum amount of water to establish new turf were never changed once grass began to grow, he said. Other residents also water their lawns at inappropriate times, such as after it rains, or in inappropriate locations, such as on sidewalks or driveways.

'A PERMANENT CHANGE'

By 2040, Moss hopes to reduce customers' overall water use.

Here are some of the steps he'd like to take:

• Encourage efficiency through consumer incentives, or disincentives for wasteful practices.

• Store water during winter months for future use.

• Identify other sources to lessen the demand on the river and underground aquifers.

Some of those incentives could come through new rates, Moss said. The authority is considering charging more to large users. The details have not been determined, Moss said.

He also is considering offering customers incentives or rebates for switching to energy-saving appliances.

"People always focus on saving water because of the drought," Moss said. "We want a permanent change, so people don't need to use as much water, so they don't."

Moss said the authority is also investigating ways to reuse treated wastewater and stormwater runoff.

Many golf courses use treated wastewater to irrigate, especially in the summer, Sexton said. In the winter, however, the authority usually has plenty of reuse water left and discharges it into its permitted location, the Great Swamp, off U.S. 17.

Moss said the authority would like to develop a way to store the treated wastewater for later use. Sexton said the authority is considering pumping it into a deep aquifer that's not used for drinking water.

The authority also wants to store more excess drinking water underground. It has two "aquifer storage recovery" facilities, and it is building a third facility in Palmetto Bluff.

If drawing more water from the Savannah River is not possible and storage capabilities are limited, Moss said the authority would consider tapping new sources. Those sources could include:

• Developing new wells in the Upper Floridan Aquifer, away from the coast.

• Building additional wells to draw from the Middle Floridan Aquifer.

• Drawing water from the Salkahatchie or Edisto rivers.

• Building a plant to turn ocean water into drinking water.

At last week's authority board meeting, chairman David Taub said implementing some of those changes will require a regional approach and help from elected officials, residents and developers.

"Absolutely," Moss agreed. "But we've got to take the lead."

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