Georgia may have moved in the right direction in the effort to slow salt water from entering area drinking water wells, but much, much more must be done to turn the tide on this problem.
Georgia's Environmental Protection Division announced recently it would no longer allow wells to be drilled to the Middle Floridan Aquifer in an effort to protect the Upper Floridan Aquifer, a primary source of drinking water in the region. There are three wells to the brackish Middle Floridan near Savannah.
Georgia officials say the two aquifers are interconnected, and pumping from the lower aquifer affects the Upper Floridan.
Catherine Templeton, director of S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, called the decision "a commitment that they are not going to make (the problem) any worse."
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And she's right. The key to stopping saltwater intrusion is to reduce the draw from the Upper Floridan.
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.
But given projections about what needs to be done to stop salt water from spreading in the Upper Floridan, it seems inevitable that more wells will be lost on Hilton Head, as well as on neighboring Daufuskie Island and the mainland. Without major reductions in use in the Savannah area, Hilton Head is expected to lose all of its wells within 25 years, 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 DHEC.
The sense of urgency is not the same for Georgia as it is for South Carolina. The saltwater plume isn't expected to reach Savannah for another 100 years. It's a problem today for us.
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 last fall.
This isn't just a problem for local utilities. 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.
A troubling aspect about Georgia's move to stop any more pumping from the Middle Floridan Aquifer is that local utilities have tapped the mid-level aquifer as an alternative source of water.
The Hilton Head Public Service District has a well in that aquifer, and the South Island Public Service has applied for a well to that depth, too.
Templeton said DHEC had not seen evidence suggesting that pumping from the lower aquifer affects the other, but said the agency would review the studies from Georgia. It should done soon.
In 2008, when a well to the Middle Floridan was being planned, Dean Moss, then the director of the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority, said wells to that aquifer needed to be monitored.
"The question is, if you pump from the middle will you create a problem that causes the water from the upper to flow down into the middle?" Moss said. "We don't understand enough about it. ... It's possible the middle offers us some real opportunity in the long run."
If there's evidence that pumping from the Middle Floridan is a problem, better to stop it now than to make a bad situation worse.