Contaminated well signals costly path ahead

News that the Hilton Head Public Service District has lost another well to saltwater intrusion reminds us that this decades-old issue is far from resolved.

The well near the entrance to Hilton Head Plantation is the sixth of the utility's wells to be lost to salt water since 2000. It expects to lose its five remaining wells by 2020.

The Upper Floridan has long been the primary drinking water source in Beaufort County and much of coastal Georgia. It's the cheapest, cleanest drinking water source available.

The saltwater contamination largely comes from Savannah area use of the aquifer, which has created a cone of depression, drawing saltwater from Port Royal Sound into the shallow freshwater aquifer. The Hilton Head Public Service District estimates the salt water is advancing about 350 feet a year in this area.

South Carolina officials must continue to push Georgia to do more to reduce its use of the aquifer. And Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority must continue planning to supply more and more homes and businesses with treated Savannah River water.

This is not only a health and safety issue, but also an economic development issue. Think of the demand for water should development of a deepwater port in Jasper County, and all the resulting commercial and residential building, come to fruition.

Island utilities already have spent tens of millions of dollars to come up with alternatives to the Upper Floridan Aquifer after the state capped the amount of aquifer water utilities could pump. They turned to Savannah River water and reverse osmosis plants to treat water from deeper aquifers. But that plan still relied on being able to pump about 9.5 million gallons a day from the Upper Floridan.

The Hilton Head Public Service District now plans to spend about $3 million to store water bought from the Water and Sewer Authority in an underground storage and recovery unit. The idea is to store water there during low-use months until needed in high-demand months. It also started using a $12.5 million reverse osmosis plant in 2009. The South Island Public Service District has a similar plant.

The problem certainly is not confined to Hilton Head Island. Mainland wells also have been affected. Plumes of salt water can be found in the aquifer under Pinckney Island, Moss Creek and Colleton River Plantation. The two gated communities are on the public water system.

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 well database established in the mid-1980s has relied on voluntary reporting.

Some of the solutions Georgia and South Carolina officials have discussed include changing where pumping from the aquifer occurs, pumping fresh water into the aquifer on Hilton Head's north end to block the salt water from advancing and creating a hydraulic trough to collect salt water and keep it away from the aquifer.

All of this tells us the days of relatively cheap drinking water here in the Lowcountry are nearing an end, and we must be ready for it.