If a South Carolina committee fails to reach an agreement with Georgia next week to slow the spread of saltwater into wells in Beaufort and Jasper counties, the dispute could end up in court.
"It's the kind of thing where you've either got to have an agreement or you've got to sue them," said Dean Moss of the S.C. Governor's Savannah River Committee. "There is nobody to compel them to do something other than the courts."
The states disagree about the amount of water that should be pumped from the Upper Floridan Aquifer to supply the Savannah area. The aquifer is a major source of drinking water in parts of Georgia and South Carolina, including Hilton Head Island, according to a study by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Moss, the former head of the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority, declined to say by how much the committee will ask Savannah to reduce its pumping or provide a proposed timetable for those reductions.
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Moss did say South Carolina officials would prefer to avoid a lawsuit, which would cost both states time and money.
A dispute between South Carolina and North Carolina over water drawn from the Catawba River, which runs near Charlotte into Upstate South Carolina, took four years to settle.
Tuesday's meeting in Atlanta will include members of the states' respective Savannah River Committees, created in 2005 to study saltwater intrusion into the aquifer.
For the two sides to reach an agreement, "there is going to be pain all around -- for everyone," Moss said.
He acknowledged it would be expensive and complicated -- both financially and politically -- for Savannah to wean itself from the water source.
Nevertheless, Moss says he is optimistic about the meeting.
"It's leaning our way -- but how steeply, I can't tell you," he said.
Attempts Thursday and Friday to reach members of the Georgia Governor's Savannah River Committee were unsuccessful.
The aquifer, an underground limestone table that holds water like a sponge, is being over-pumped, causing saltwater to seep into the water source at the northern end of Hilton Head Island and flow toward Savannah, according to a DHEC study.
"We understand that this is our problem today," Moss said. "But this is going to be their problem tomorrow."
Several wells on Hilton Head have already become salty. The contamination advances 200 to 300 feet per year, according to the DHEC study.
"We're hopeful that they can reach common ground, but we're in a position of not being able to wait," Hilton Head Public Service District spokesman Pete Nardi said.
The utility serves much of the island's north end and has lost six wells to saltwater intrusion. It has just five remaining.
To combat the intrusion, the utility uses other water sources.
Almost three-fourths of the 6 million gallons of drinking water it supplies on an average day is a combination of treated surface water from the Savannah River and salty water treated at a reverse-osmosis plant.
Slowing the salt water spread might require more dependence upon such techniques: DHEC research shows that a 90-percent pumping reduction from the aquifer is needed to stop the intrusion.
Declining annual rainfall totals also contribute to the problem, delaying the aquifer's replenishment, Moss said.
"Even if we stopped pumping today ... it would take probably a couple years for the groundwater table to return to a point where" salt water wouldn't flow toward Savannah, Moss said.
Moss said he expects another joint meeting in February to announce the S.C. and Georgia committees' plans.