S.C. environmental officials say it might be time to give Georgia an ultimatum to slow contamination of drinking water for Beaufort and Jasper counties.
The S.C. Governor's Savannah River Committee was told at a meeting Monday on Hilton Head Island that attempts to cooperate with Georgia to limit saltwater intrusion of an aquifer stretching beneath both states have yielded few results.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, S.C. Department of Natural Resources and officials from Beaufort County water utilities made presentations at Monday's meeting.
Afterward, DHEC director Catherine Templeton, who also is a committee member, said if a meeting with Georgia officials planned for September doesn't lead to an agreement to curtail the intrusion, the state should be prepared to sue in federal court.
"We've danced a long time. If (Georgia) can't make some movement, if they can't make some concession -- even though they recognize the problem -- let's let the federal courts decide," Templeton said after the meeting. "Otherwise, you've got two states pouring money into more studies. ... It's not progress, and you continue to have an adverse impact on the state."
A spokeswoman for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal directed questions to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. An attempt Monday afternoon to reach a Georgia DNR official was unsuccessful.
Studies shows the rate of salt water entering the freshwater Upper Floridan Aquifer, the primary source of the island's drinking water, has increased because of demand from coastal communities in South Carolina and Georgia. Salt water has been advancing about 350 to 400 feet or more a year into the aquifer from Port Royal Sound.
Both states have limited the amount of water they draw from the aquifer, but over-pumping in Savannah continues to lead to the loss of drinking wells on Hilton Head, according to DHEC models.
That has forced Hilton Head's three public service districts to raise their rates and buy more water pumped from the Savannah River by the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority.
Hilton Head No. 1 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. South Island Public Service District recently lost a well in Long Cove Club to intrusion.
"The studies over the last 10 years show the island -- without some major reduction in water use by Savannah -- will lose all of its wells within 25 years," Broad Creek Public Service District general manager Rusty Hildebrand said.
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 numbers from DHEC.
South Carolina dropped from pumping about 14 million gallons a day to seven million gallons a day.
But modeling shows a 90-percent reduction will be needed to curtail loss of more wells, David Baize of DHEC's Bureau of Water told the committee Monday.
That means Georgia would have to cap its supply at 10 million gallons a day and South Carolina at about two million, Baize said.
It's something Hilton Head utilities say they're willing to do, but that might be too costly and politically painful for Georgia, with salt water not expected to reach Savannah for another 100 years, committee chairman Dean Moss said.Beaufort County water utilities have spent a combined $125 million since 1998 combating saltwater intrusion. Another $80 to $106 million is expected to be spent over the next 20 years to offset future loss of drinking water.
"You have a resource that is being mined, has been contaminated and its usefulness taken out," Hilton Head Public Service District general manager Richard Cyr said "I don't think that's right."