Rising water and sewer costs announced this month by a Hilton Head Island utility is a reminder that water is an increasingly valuable resource in Beaufort County, and business as usual is unacceptable.
South Island Public Service District customers will soon pay higher bills, in large part because saltwater is contaminating its primary water source at a rate faster than expected.
Saltwater intrusion in the Upper Floridan Aquifer is a long-running problem for this region that demands change in many ways.
It demands that South Carolina stand its ground in negotiations with the state of Georgia. The Savannah area has been drawing large amounts of water from the Upper Floridan Aquifer since the late 1890s. It still draws it at a level that is believed to be accelerating the saltwater intrusion in Beaufort County. This has led to closing more than a dozen utility wells on Hilton Head that formerly produced good drinking water. And it has forced South Carolina to limit the amount of water that utilities can withdraw from the Upper Floridan Aquifer.
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The continued saltwater intrusion demands that utilities optimize those withdrawals.
South Island has done this by installing a reverse osmosis plant so it can use water it pumps from a much deeper aquifer. Now it plans to build two storage and recovery wells. It will store water in the wells when demand is low in the winter to help meet higher demand in the summer. On the north end of the island, the Hilton Head Public Service District, which has lost six wells to saltwater intrusion, recently raised its taxes in large part to build a storage and recovery well. The Hilton Head Public Service District also has contracted with the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority to pump treated Savannah River water to supplement its well supplies. These are not cheaper or easier options than the Upper Floridan Aquifer, but they are necessary.
The saltwater intrusion problem also demands that utilities serving the county work in unison to best use the resource. Over the years this has led to a sharply reduced number of utilities serving the county. Mergers have made more sense than a fractured approach to water and sewer service, and there may need to be more mergers in the future.
The saltwater intrusion problem also demands change by consumers.
The best way to reduce expensive new options for drinking water is to reduce the demand. That requires consumers to wisely use water. Utilities have addressed this by adopting rate systems that penalize the heaviest users.
But as drinking water -- which we all take for granted -- becomes more costly because it is a commodity with greater value, many things must change. It starts with the consumer. Use of things such as rain barrels to supply irrigation water, drip irrigation systems and low-flow showerheads should no longer be exceptions in a community facing the water-supply challenges we do.