State working on agreement with Georgia to curb loss of drinking water

tbarton@islandpacket.comSeptember 15, 2012 

Alarmed about an ever-diminishing supply of pure drinking water underground in Beaufort and Jasper counties, South Carolina officials will soon try again to persuade their counterparts in Georgia to gradually reduce consumption.

"We are working on putting together a proposal for Georgia creating a specific schedule for their reductions," Dean Moss, a member the S.C. Governor's Savannah River Committee, said Friday.

Moss declined to provide details on how much water the Savannah area will be asked to stop pumping or the timetable for reductions.

"It's a work on progress, but we are moving more aggressively than we have previously," he said.

Committee members said this week they hope to solve the problem by working with Georgia, but South Carolina's top environmental official has said a lawsuit is an option if the Peach State won't reduce consumption.Both states pump much of their potable water from the aquifer, a limestone substrata that holds water like a sponge. (Some utilities supplement water from underground with other sources, such as the Savannah River.)

When more water is pumped from the aquifer than is naturally replaced -- by rain, for instance -- saltwater creeps into the vacant spaces and contaminates the aquifer. As a result, several wells operated by utilities In Beaufort County, including some on Hilton Head Island, have been shut down.

Moss's concerns about the depletion of pure water from wells are echoed by Beaufort County Council chairman Weston Newton. "Fresh water is a limited natural resource and Hilton Head (utilities) have spent millions to make sure they stay ahead of the problem and have an adequate and clean drinking water supply," Newton said.

At his request, officials representing local utilities briefed Beaufort County Council members Monday on the threat posed by saltwater intrusion.

"It appears they've done a good job of reducing use," Newton said of the local utilities, but he added: "Our neighbors across the state line don't seem to be as attentive to the concern of overuse, and that's problematic."

He described the saltwater intrusion problem as "alarming."

'THE TIME FOR ACTION'

South Carolina and Georgia have been studying the problem for years. In 2005, governors from both states created the Savannah River Committee, but there has been little tangible progress.

Without major reductions in use in the Savannah area, Hilton Head Island will lose all of its wells within 25 years, Hilton Head public utility officials have said.

Faced with that prospect, South Carolina officials will soon take their new proposal for reducing consumption to Georgia. The meeting hasn't been scheduled and it's not known how Georgia officials will react. Attempts Friday to reach Georgia members of the Savannah River Committee and City of Savannah Water Supply and Treatment Department were unsuccessful.

South Carolina's top environmental official said in July that if Georgia balks, it may be time for an ultimatum. South Carolina should be prepared to go to federal court, said Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and also is a member of the Savannah River Committee.

Moss, however, said he's committed to avoiding litigation, "which will only extend the time it takes to implement a solution."

It took four years of legal wrangling to settle a dispute between South Carolina and North Carolina over water drawn from the Catawba River, which runs past Charlotte into upstate South Carolina. The case, ultimately settled out of court, helped secure water rights for both states and established standards for conserving water.

"Georgia, I think, understands the time for action has come," Moss said. "When the time comes to present them with a proposal, I believe they'll consider it seriously, based on what I've heard."

Extreme pumping reductions will be needed in both states to prevent shutting down more wells in South Carolina. The Savannah area would have to limit its pumping to 10 million gallons a day, down from about 52 million; South Carolina will have to go to about 2 million, down from about 14 million, according to DHEC.

Hilton Head utilities say they are willing to move toward those limits, but say it will be "enormously expensive" for both sides because alternate sources of potable water will have to be developed, said Broad Creek Public Service District general manager Russell Hildebrand. Beaufort County water utilities have spent a combined $125 million since 1998 combating saltwater intrusion and another $80 million to $106 million would be needed over the next 20 years.

For its part, Georgia may feel less urgency about solving the problem than South Carolina -- not only because of the expense, but also because a saltwater plume isn't expected to reach Savannah for another 100 years.

"I don't think Georgia will go into this quickly or as willingly as we'd like them to, but I'd like to think the two states could negotiate this," Hildebrand said.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead

Related content:

Savannah River Basin Partnership

DHEC director: Draw line in sand with GA on saltwater intrusion: July 23, 2012

Hilton Head water and sewer utility proposes rate increase: June 19, 2012

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