Another skirmish on tap in state's 'water war'

GEORGETOWN — They dug a canal 27 miles through the swamp a half century ago to reach an inland river deep enough to supply fresh water for this saltwater city.

Last summer, that wasn't good enough.

The drought-plagued Pee Dee River ran so dry it no longer fed the canal's intake pumps. On the other end were the taps for 11,000 families and businesses.

"You couldn't even get a dredge to where we wanted to dredge. You couldn't float it in," said Reuben Williams, maintenance manager for International Paper, the company that built and operates IP Canal.

"We've been through drought before. We have never experienced that," said Lane Mixon, Georgetown Water Utilities department head.

That's the issue that confronts state legislators — minimum stream flow. How much water is enough to make sure it is still a stream? It's the latest skirmish in what is becoming South Carolina's own Western-style "water war."

The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee today will debate for a second time a proposed state water plan, a law that would create a permitting system and set withdrawal limits for most large surface water users. The limits potentially could be tightened in drought conditions, and those are fighting words.

The biggest water users — power plants, industries, water treatment plants, large farms — already have pushed to be exempt from the permits and limits. Now lobbyists for those interests are pushing for the law to mandate the smallest minimum flow possible in rivers, allowing as much water as possible to be withdrawn for their upstream uses.

Environmental advocates don't like it.

"It's outrageous. We need to see not what is the maximum amount of water we can take out, but how much should we be leaving in. The more you take out of the reservoir, the more often we'll be in drought conditions," said Gerrit Jobsis, Southeast conservation director for American Rivers.

Drought hangs over this battle like a cloud. Minimum flow became an issue across the Southeast in the aftermath of the severe 1998-2002 drought. South Carolina communities suffered when North Carolina lakes cut back releases on rivers the states share. Georgia became embroiled in legal battles with Alabama and Florida over their rivers.

Having a permit plan is pivotal to being able to work out river water-sharing agreements with neighboring states. It might be vital to winning South Carolina's water wars lawsuit against North Carolina over proposed withdrawals from the Catawba River, the upstream source of much of the Lowcountry's drinking water.

That suit is before the U.S. Supreme Court, and North Carolina is putting together its own plan.

Industries at first wanted to set minimum flows at the lowest historic flow over 10 years. Environmentalists said that's drought level, too low to keep a stream or its ecosystem healthy. After a contentious hearing, the Senate committee told the stakeholders to work out a compromise.

Industries now support adding 20 percent more flow. That's the level at which the environmental integrity of the stream would be maintained, said Marcia Purday, S.C. Chamber of Commerce communications vice president.

"That is an improvement. But it's what we call 'flat-lining' a river (maintaining a single water level). We wouldn't see the kind of natural, seasonal variability that makes a river healthy," Jobsis said.

Legislators say that without a compromise, the bill doesn't go anywhere this session.

"At the end of the day, that's what we're talking about, how much of the river are we leaving for the public and the ecosystem. You can't simply dry up a river," said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, a committee member.

Meanwhile, last summer International Paper used a last-ditch fix for the Georgetown canal, setting temporary pumps directly into the river. "Saved the day it did," said Mixon, the Georgetown water department head.

The intake was dredged and is again feeding the canal pumps. Rain is starting to fall. But another hot summer is coming, and North and South Carolina are still in a severe, year-long drought. Flow in the Pee Dee on South Carolina's coast depends in no small amount on water released from lakes in North Carolina.

At the IP Canal, pipes for the temporary pumps from the river are still in place.