Even in a state like South Carolina, with its relatively abundant fresh water supply, that precious resource only goes so far.
And state officials are starting to worry that an environmental “new normal” — increased instances of drought in recent years — along with higher demand, regional politics and other factors, could jeopardize the management and distribution of water.
In an effort to start fresh, engage all stakeholders and remove the politics from the water debate, the Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Department of Natural Resources are teaming up to conduct the first-ever comprehensive assessment of the state’s water resources.
It’s a two-pronged approach, according to DHEC Director Catherine Templeton. A request for proposals will be issued inviting environmental contractors to bid on a project meant to collect empirical data, she said. Meanwhile, a memorandum of understanding has been signed with Clemson University that assigns its Water Resources Center the task of developing “a robust stakeholder process” and “comprehensive framework” that improves the state’s long-term water management prospects.
“DNR has statutory responsibility to have a water plan,” Templeton said. And DHEC is responsible for administering surface water withdrawal permitting and reporting and ensuring the supply is safe. Early in 2012, soon after Templeton and Alvin Taylor assumed the leadership of their respective agencies, they got together to discuss the matter.
“You need a water plan, and I need to see it,” Templeton told Taylor. “We need to operate with good science and integrity.”
And they have to take into account all water users: power plants and utilities, recreational and environmental groups, individual consumers and others. Any time a study was done, it was criticized by whoever didn’t like the results, Templeton said. The two agency heads decided to take the bull by the horns.
“We are blood brothers; we will not be divided,” Templeton said. “We will not let anyone else fund (the project). First we will measure what we have, then we will figure out how to divide it.”
Molly Gore, manager of corporate communications for Santee Cooper, said the utility’s environmental staff welcomed the undertaking.
“Santee Cooper certainly supports an initiative like this, which will provide a thorough, comprehensive review of our state’s water resources,” Gore said. “We appreciate that they are involving stakeholders in the process and look forward to participating.”
The announcement received an optimistic endorsement from Charleston Water Systems, too.
Andrew W. Fairey, Charleston Water’s chief operating officer, said his utility participated in meetings early last year at which the goal of expanding and improving the state’s water plan was discussed.
“We use surface water, so we’re quite interested in it,” he said. “The water industry in the state, in general, wants to see this done. We want to make certain we’re a stakeholder in the process.”
It’s important to understand how water in each of the river basins is used, and the project could include the development of hydrodynamic computer modeling for each basin, generating data that can be used to assess and predict impacts, he said.
“The 2005 and 2007 droughts certainly brought attention to existing state water plans and the fact that there weren’t very useful tools for doing water planning in the state,” Fairey said.
And because South Carolina shares water sources with North Carolina and Georgia, it has become increasingly necessary to evaluate what neighboring states are doing, he said.
“It’s a big effort,” he said.
Templeton said the state Legislature was asked for $2.2 million in project funding, and about half the money now is in hand. She’s hoping the rest will follow soon, she said.
Current water distribution may or may not be impacted by the results of this enterprise, and it’s likely that not all stakeholders will be entirely satisfied, she said. But at least the process will be transparent and objective.
“We have been puritanical in stripping the politics from this,” Templeton said. “We have ruffled a lot of feathers, but we have closer relationships with all these people. They might not agree with result, but at least they can trust that the process was fair.”
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.