When Thelma Byas was a child on Hilton Head Island in the 1940s, she was scared of worms. Tapeworms.
The little girl would carefully scoop two buckets of water from a shallow well, then head back to her family’s home on what would later become U.S. 278 on the island’s north end. Her family cooked with and drank the water. And in the winter, she left the buckets to sit outside all day so the sun would warm the water for their baths.
Every time she needed to relieve herself, Byas headed to the family’s outhouse — and braced herself to see tapeworms. The parasites, which live in human intestines, were proof that the well water was contaminated. It wasn’t an uncommon problem in many of the island’s early communities.
“When you go to the bathroom, you so afraid. I’m telling you the God-heaven truth, when you go to the bathroom, you so scared to use the toilet,” said Byas.
Fast forward to present day Hilton Head. While safe drinking water has been available island-wide for half a century, hundreds of island residents like Byas are finally getting access to another basic and important amenity — the town’s sewer system, which manages and cleans wastewater.
A multimillion-dollar town project is bringing to an end a reliance on faulty septic tanks that are prone to overflowing, which can contaminate the environment and, some argue, are only slightly better than the outhouses of yesteryear.
The old septic tanks are also the reason behind some of the island’s biggest eyesores and unsanitary living environments, creating puddles of sewage, contaminated runoff and foul smells. Reporting by The Island Packet in 2015 revealed that some north-end residents had placed portable toilets in their yards to use when their septic tanks malfunctioned.
Byas and her sister, Doris Grant, relied on septic tanks for years. When the rain fell, the tanks sometimes overflowed into yards with feces and other waste, giving off a smell that offended even the hardiest noses.
“When it rained, sometimes it just get full-up with water because sometimes it wasn’t capped well enough,” Grant said. “And then you had to protect it from people driving up on it, and you didn’t want children playing up on it.”
Now, both native islanders are relieved to be hooked up to the sewer system.
“Being connected to the sewer, you don’t have to deal with none of that,” said Grant, who began receiving sewer service last year.
“I ain’t got no complaint,” Byas concurred.
Finding the money
Byas’ tapping into the sewer system is part of Hilton Head’s five-year project to provide sewer to 490 land parcels by 2020 — over half of the approximately 900 properties without access to sewers before the project began.
Now, at the end of the second year, the Hilton Head Public Service District-facilitated project has built two new sewer lift stations and connected 40 properties to sewers. In February, the utility also announced that 120 more connections are now available in the Oakview, Marshland and Dillon road areas.
Not everything has gone smoothly. The project’s cost tripled to an estimated $10 million last year, up from the original projection of $3.6 million when more accurate bids with specifics on engineering and constructions costs came in.
So far, the town has used about $5.5 million in general obligation funds to cover the costs.
Town Council still must figure out how to pay for the rest, according to John Troyer, town director of finance. Staff will make a recommendation with this year’s budget proposal, he added.
Meanwhile, the work itself is going according to plan, said the utility’s general manager, Pete Nardi. The rest of the parcels will receive sewer hookups in the second phase of the project, which will occur over the next three years. And it’s been a welcome development, too.
“This is for folks who want service,” Nardi said. “So the response has been very positive.”
No easy task
But connecting island properties to a 21st-century waste system isn’t as easy as easy gliding in, saying hello and connecting one line with another.
It’s a complicated process, involving building two new sewer lift stations to pump wastewater up from underneath the ground, building main lines for the streets, and converting the houses waste systems to connect them to those main lines.
Plus, there’s the issue of property rights.
On heirs property — land that was passed down through freed slaves’ descendents without being documented by a living will — each parcel has several owners. Since many of the smaller roads on the north end of the island are heirs property, the town needed permission from the owners to build sewer lines underneath those roads.
Other times, people who own those private roads might be part-time Hilton Head residents who live somewhere in the middle of the country. Tracking them down and getting their permission to build can be a tough task, Nardi said.
On top of all that, the cost of converting from septic tanks to sewers is pricey.
While residents do not have to pay for the main line, the cost of the sewer capacity fee along with conversion — the tap fee — averages about $6,000, according to Nardi.
To curb the costs, some residents have gotten help from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, which is offering grants through Project SAFE.
In addition, the public utility is offering residents incremental financing. Rather than paying upfront, customers can add the cost to their property tax bills. If a resident chooses to pay over 20 years, Nardi said, it becomes an affordable option.
By the time the project is finished, about 400 properties will remain without sewer access.
The town prioritized hooking up properties that were built before modern development standards, Nardi said.
Therefore, those 400 properties that will remain on septic tanks are typically in modern, pre-planned communities around the Spanish Wells area.
After the town project is completed, those property owners may choose to connect to sewer — but the town has no plans right now to pay for those connections.
Midway through the project, the town and the utility company are optimistic.
Hilton Head has heard “nothing but support” on the project, Mayor David Bennett said.
“This is one of those projects that really helps to build relationships and trust with the community,” Bennett said. “And they are highly supported, no matter who you talk to.”