Mount Pleasant Waterworks (copy) (copy) (copy)

The groundwater well operation center for Mount Pleasant Waterworks is located in the Old Village at the corner of King And Simmons Streets. Brad Nettles/Staff

Mount Pleasant Waterworks officials will ask state regulators for a "reasonable and protective" compromise in the plan to cut its permitted share of groundwater in half.

If the agency doesn't make headway with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control in a meeting on Wednesday, it will appeal later this month to a regional committee that must sign off on the plan, waterworks general manager Clay Duffie said Monday.

In addition to that, the town of Mount Pleasant will appeal to its state legislators, Mayor Will Haynie told a meeting of the waterworks commissioners.

DHEC has told Mount Pleasant Waterworks they will cut the utility's permitted share of groundwater by 57 percent. The proposed reduction could also force the water company to buy more water from other utilities. 

The move would end up costing customers more at the tap, waterworks officials said.

"We are searching for a sustainable answer," commission chairman Rick Crosby said. The cuts, along with the town's expected growth, creates "a perfect storm for a true water crisis in the future," he said.

"We have a water supply plan that is sustainable for the expected and planned growth to one of the fastest growing communities in the United States, but we cannot execute this plan if our withdrawal limit is unreasonably cut in half," he said.

The reduction is one of the first real bites from a revamped state Water Bureau and comes after Waterworks officials led opposition earlier to a groundwater withdrawal permit for the internet data giant Google.

There were no indications that Google's water situation is related to the state's decision. Isle of Palms Water and Sewer, another area utility using groundwater, also has been cut back.

Duffie told commissioners on Monday the Waterworks' past criticism of DHEC could have contributed to the cuts.

DHEC produced the 57 percent limit "out of the blue" and not based on sound science, Duffie said.

"The (computer study) models don't show it will affect the groundwater supply," he said. Multiple conservation efforts are already in place at the Waterworks. With the cuts, DHEC appears to be punishing the commission instead of rewarding it for doing the right thing, he said.

DHEC officials would not comment after notifying the Waterworks beyond providing the letter sent to the utility that said the new limit would be based on previous reported usage and need.

The withdrawal limit would be about what Waterworks customers used in 2018, but that volume has varied widely from year to year and permits generally have allowed for far more.

The leeway to pump more water gives the utility flexibility to respond to market or supply changes and to plan for the future.

In the bigger picture, residents and industries across the coast are taking out groundwater faster than it can replenish. The levels are dropping in many of the monitoring wells and have never really recovered from the drought 20 years ago, according to state monitors.

Subground aquifers are massive, interconnected layers under the surface saturated like sponges with water that seeps from the surface over the long term. They are essentially the reserve tanks for huge spans of land across the Southeast. As they get drawn down, surface water sinks to fill the void.

The drop, along with increasing demands on surface water supplies, are the makings of a water crisis.

Mount Pleasant Waterworks currently draws about 1.3 billion gallons per year of groundwater — about 40 percent of the 2.7 billion gallons overall that it sells to 36,000 commercial and residential customers, according to figures provided by the utility and its 2017 fiscal statement. Crosby acknowledged the utility is a large user.

The rest of the water is bought from Charleston Water System, which pulls mostly from the Bushy Park Reservoir in Goose Creek.

DHEC, meanwhile, is processing Google's request to triple its current groundwater withdrawal to 548 million gallons per year to cool its servers at the Berkeley County center it is expanding. 

Google is constructing a $600 million expansion of its center near Goose Creek, which would make it one of the company's five largest data server sites.

The department's handling of the new Google request was expected to be one of the first hard tests of a reorganized and restaffed Water Bureau, which critics have called on to tighten up on groundwater permits.

But the state still lacks any published plan to limit withdrawals by large scale users, one of the Waterworks' criticisms.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.