Rainy summer brings down water bills for some Beaufort County residents

bheffernan@islandpacket.comJuly 29, 2013 

From right, Peyton Brock, 6, of Beaufort, and her cousins Elloree Harward, 7, and Lyles Harward, 4, both of Charlotte, N.C. play in the rain at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in Beaufort in this file photo.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Staff photo Buy Photo

Frequent rainstorms in Beaufort and Jasper counties this summer have meant more green on residents' lawns and more in their pockets, too.

Some Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority customers saved as much as 15 percent on water bills in June compared to the same month in 2012, according to chief operations officer Chris Petry.

Water demand has decreased by about the same rate this summer, down to about 19 million gallons a day last month from 22 million gallons a day in June 2012, Petry said.

The frequent storms have reduced the need for irrigation across the region, Petry said, even though rainfall has not been evenly distributed.

Flooding has been a problem in areas of Jasper County near the Savannah River, and 18 inches of rain have fallen in Ridgeland since June 1. However, the Beaufort area has received just about half that amount -- close to its average rainfall, according to Wes Tyler of the S.C. State Climatology Office.

Such large differences aren't unusual in coastal areas, where isolated thunderstorms often form during summer afternoons and evenings but dissipate before reaching the next town over, Tyler said.

Still, the frequency of showers -- about 30 days of measurable rain since June 1 were recorded at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort -- probably was enough to keep people from watering their lawns, Tyler said.

Irrigation accounts for about half of summer water use, according to Petry.

Utility-bill savings, like rainfall, haven't been evenly distributed, however. Hilton Head Island customers served by public service districts did not see the same decline in average water bills.

In fact, usage there was about the same or slightly higher.

Hilton Head Public Service District spokesman Pete Nardi says it is possible that more people visited the island last June than during the same month a year ago, driving up consumption.

The district, which provides water and sewer access to northern parts of the island, supplied 7.3 million of gallons of water in June, Nardi said. That's virtually no change from last year, even though the island received 5.4 inches of rain last month -- two more than in June 2012, he said.

Broad Creek Public Service District general manager Russell Hildebrand said he was "just blown away" to discover that water use in his mid-island district had increased in June by 4 percent to 2.6 million gallons a day.

"It has simply got to be the number of people" visiting the island, he said, "We're having a phenomenal year, based on things I've seen."

Even when rainfall lowers demand for water, it can increase the cost utilities incur to treat it, as it has for BJWSA to process water from the Savannah River, where the utility collects more than 90 percent of its water.

When the river level rises above 16 feet, as it did on July 15, water begins seeping into surrounding wetlands and collecting organic matter that has to be removed, according to Petry. BJWSA is using twice the amount of chemicals to treat the water as in a typical summer, he said.

So far, there has been no noticeable difference in water color delivered to customers, Petry said, but "at some point, we may not be able to remove all of the color, ... so it may cause the water to have a tint to it."

The river crested July 18 in Jasper County at 18.38 feet -- the highest level in that area since 1993 -- and remained above the 16-foot mark until Monday, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.

Even if the rain stops completely in Beaufort and Jasper counties, the water level could remain high as precipitation farther upstream empties into the Savannah River.

"We think (the high water levels) will persist for another month and maybe as long as three," he said. "There's no way to know how it could change in the next month."

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian.

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