Clean, abundant water is the lifeblood of South Carolina's economy, environment and quality of life. Jobs, communities, industry, recreation, tourism and productive fisheries depend on the availability of water. South Carolina has no oversight of major withdrawals from our rivers and streams, while recurrent droughts, conflicts with neighboring states over shared water supplies, and population growth make it painfully obvious that water is a limited, precious resource.
Allocating the use of water in our state through withdrawal permits is the first step to being responsible stewards of the public's water. Since two-thirds of our rivers have their headwaters out of state, a water allocation bill will enable South Carolina to protect downstream users, negotiate with neighboring states over shared water supplies, and confront long-term climate impacts.
The conservation community advocates a water allocation bill that balances public and private needs; requires a permit from DHEC for all surface water withdrawals of three million gallons or more a month; maintains seasonal flows to protect the biological, chemical, and physical integrity of our surface waters; and protects existing surface water users by permitting their withdrawals at current levels.
It is especially important to adopt minimum flow standards that keep us from actually reaching minimum levels. Instead of a race to the bottom, our goal should be to keep as much water in our rivers, estuaries and lakes as possible. Maintaining natural flows is good for industry, good for recreation, and good for our forests, fish and wildlife. It also serves as a savings account for not-so-rainy days in the future.
Finally, South Carolina has a virtual "hidden reservoir" of water that can be tapped by eliminating waste and encouraging conservation practices. The state's myriad of water utilities are beset by overlapping and inconsistent regulatory oversight, confusing private-public partnerships, and outdated facilities. The conservation community supports legislation to upgrade aging water infrastructure, reduce leaks and notify the public in the event of sewage spills.
Officials push SC to improve water management
Recurring droughts, interstate conflicts over water and a local population expected to resume its rapid growth in the future have some officials urging South Carolina to better manage its water resources now.
The state requires water users to obtain permits for groundwater withdrawals or to transfer water from one basin to another. But it doesn't have a permitting program governing withdrawals from rivers, lakes and streams.
"Anybody could take water out of the Savannah River," including businesses, utilities and developers, said Dean Moss, general manager of the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority.
"They only need a permit from the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to put a pipe in. ... There is no limit on how much water you can take out."
The river is the primary source of drinking water for Beaufort and Jasper counties and Savannah. Unlike South Carolina, Georgia has a program governing withdrawals from lakes, rivers and streams.
Moss said there should be limits established in the Palmetto State that prevent river and stream levels from falling too low.
A permitting program also is important since South Carolina and Georgia are in continuing negotiations on future water needs, Moss said.
"We can't expect Georgia to seriously enter into an agreement with us if we don't have any way to enforce that
agreement," he said.
South Carolina also needs to show it can manage its water resources properly, he said.
"If the agreement limits the amount of water we can take out of the Savannah (River) and we don't have a permitting
system to demonstrate we are complying, we won't get an agreement," Moss said.
A bill has been introduced in the S.C. Senate to establish such a program. It proposes the following:
•Require existing and new users to obtain permits from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control if they use or plan to use 3 million or more gallons a month.
•Require DHEC to consider the biological, chemical and physical state of the waterway and the potential effect on the public before issuing new permits.
Environmentalists call the proposal "The Fair Share Water Bill" and say it protects the interests of business and industry; helps the state make more informed decisions about water consumption; and allows the state to determine its water needs accurately.
"It protects the people who are already here and creates a reliable way of forecasting whether we have water for new industries," said Patrick Moore of the nonprofit Coastal Conservation League.
A similar bill proposed last year didn't pass because of disagreements over what the minimum flow in rivers and streams should be. The current bill proposes flows that would follow seasonal variations.
S.C. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who co-sponsored the current bill, said the recent drought showed the state how quickly reservoirs could be depleted.
"As our state's population grows, the stress on these resources and the conflicts between users will become increasingly bitter," he said. "We need to put a good plan in now, while things are relatively calm, to strike a balance between economic and environmental values."