A fundamental condition separates South Carolina and Georgia on their approaches to the issue of salt water contaminating a primary drinking water source for the region:
We're paying the piper today for overuse of the Upper Floridan Aquifer; Georgia has decades to go before it is in a similar position.
It's hard to see anything short of a lawsuit getting Georgia officials to move on a timetable that helps South Carolina rather than suits them.
South Carolina officials say the amount of water pumped from the aquifer must be reduced 90 percent to stop the loss of any more wells to saltwater contamination.
Here's the catch: The wedge of salt water advancing about 350 feet a year from Port Royal Sound into the aquifer is not expected to reach Savannah for another 100 years.
Compare that with the situation on Hilton Head. The Hilton Head Public Service District has lost six wells to salt water since 2000, with five of its six remaining wells expected to be lost by 2024. The South Island Public Service District recently lost a well in Long Cove Club.
Beaufort County utilities have spent a combined $125 million since 1998 fighting saltwater intrusion and developing alternative sources of drinking water. They expect to spend another $80 million to $106 million over the next 20 years.
The kicker is that saltwater contamination largely is a result of aquifer use in the Savannah area. It has created a cone of depression under Savannah, drawing saltwater from Port Royal Sound into the shallow freshwater aquifer.
Georgia, prompted in part by a threat of a lawsuit from South Carolina, in 1999 began studying its coastal groundwater situation. South Carolina officials have described actions taken here to slow saltwater intrusion as necessary precursors to a lawsuit.
Both states have made strides in addressing the contamination. Georgia has reduced pumping from the aquifer to about 51.6 million gallons a day, down from a peak of 85 million gallons a day in 1990, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
South Carolina pumps about 7 million gallons a day, down from about 14 million gallons.
That's progress, but continuing contamination of wells shows it is not enough. And the problem certainly is not confined to Hilton Head. Mainland wells also have been affected. Plumes of salt water can be found in the aquifer under Pinckney Island, Moss Creek and Colleton River Plantation. The two gated communities are on the public water system.
Many individual well owners rely on clean, relatively cheap water from the aquifer. State officials said in 2009 that there were at least 3,700 private wells in Beaufort County, but the number could be twice that. South Carolina only began issuing permits for private wells about 10 years ago.
Georgia and South Carolina must come to terms on this and other water issues. Our increasing reliance on the shared Savannah River makes it imperative.
Severe drought can put strains on the river. Some also worry that Georgia officials might eye the Savannah River as a potential water source for thirsty metro Atlanta.
The Lowcountry is running out of time for Georgia officials to figure out an equitable plan. Turn the threat of a lawsuit into reality to spur greater action.