Georgia, SC must reach agreement on water use

info@islandpacket.comSeptember 29, 2013 

water

This photo, provided by the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority, shows the river-water intake at the Savannah River near Purrysburg in Jasper County.

PHOTO BY ERIC HORAN — Courtesy of BJWSA

Yet another group has been formed to address the competing water interests of Georgia and South Carolina, this one a caucus of legislators representing counties along either side of the Savannah River.

The goal of the Savannah River Basin Water Caucus is to hammer out a pact between the two states about use of a critical water source for both and to stay out of court over the issues if possible. We wish them well, but we also must recognize that years of negotiating are ahead of us, as well as behind us. Balancing the interests of the two states has proved difficult, and it's not likely to get any easier, no matter how many different entities tackle it.

It's an all too familiar topic for those of us who live and work in the Lowcountry. Georgia and South Carolina have been trying to agree on the use of the Upper Floridan Aquifer, a primary source of water for the coastal regions of both states, for more than two decades.

Hilton Head Island has been losing wells to saltwater intrusion brought on by excessive pumping from the freshwater aquifer. Studies shows the rate of salt water entering the freshwater Upper Floridan has increased because of demand from coastal communities in South Carolina and Georgia . Salt water has been advancing 350 to 400 feet or more a year into the aquifer from Port Royal Sound.

Without major reductions in use in the Savannah area, Hilton Head is expected to lose all of its wells within 25 years, island utility officials have said.

The Savannah area would have to limit its pumping to 10 million gallons a day, down from about 52 million; South Carolina would have to go to about 2 million gallons a day, down from about 7 million, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

But the saltwater plume isn't expected to reach Savannah for another 100 years. It's a problem today for us.

The two states have made progress, but the issue is far from settled. Georgia's Environmental Protection Division announced earlier this year it would no longer allow wells to be drilled to the Middle Floridan Aquifer in an effort to protect the Upper Floridan.

While South Carolina officials said they welcomed Georgia's efforts, they're also not convinced the Middle Floridan use holds the key to achieving that goal.

And that leads us back to the Savannah River, a water source we have tapped to help replace contaminated Upper Floridan water.

All three of Hilton Head Island's utilities have invested heavily in bringing treated Savannah River water to the island, as well as digging wells to deeper aquifers and treating the water through reverse osmosis. Beaufort County utilities have spent a combined $125 million since 1998 combating saltwater intrusion and another $80 million to $106 million will be needed over the next 20 years, utility officials reported in fall 2012.

The Lowcountry needs a one-two punch on the water issue. We need to ensure that the Savannah River continues to be a reliable, clean water source, and we need Georgia to reduce its use of the Upper Floridan in ways and amounts that will make a real difference in slowing -- and hopefully stopping -- saltwater intrusion.

Gov. Nikki Haley, who attended the recent caucus meeting at Lake Hartwell, said, "I think that as long as states are talking, you stay out of court. There are going to be disagreements from time to time, but they usually happen when you don't even sit in a room together."

That may be, but at some point, talk needs to turn into specific actions. If it takes a lawsuit or the threat of one to achieve that, South Carolina should be prepared to do that.

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