State regulators won't budge on their decision preventing Mount Pleasant Waterworks from withdrawing more groundwater.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control denied the water utility's latest request. The department is requiring the utility to buy more surface water from Charleston Water System.
The utility already buys more than half of the 2.7 billion gallons per year it sells to 36,000 commercial and residential customers.
Clay Duffie, the waterworks general manager, said it's likely the utility will appeal the decision directly to the DHEC board.
The utility maintains it needs the extra water to stay cost-effective for a community that has been one of the faster growing in the region.
"We can't meet the demands of our water system and our customers without that water" or without charging customers more, Duffie said.
Mount Pleasant Waterworks currently draws about 1.3 billion gallons per year of groundwater — about 40 percent of the water it sells.
The latest DHEC denial comes about a month after the internet giant Google agreed to use groundwater only in emergencies to cool servers at its Berkeley County plant. The arrangement settled a fight with conservationists.
The two controversies have been tied together by timing and the large volumes of groundwater requested.
Both permit requests were among the first DHEC has had to deal with amid an emerging statewide water war. Residents and industries in South Carolina already are drawing water from wells faster than it replenishes below the surface. Water levels are dropping in many of the monitoring wells and have never really recovered from the drought 20 years ago, according to state monitors.
After originally approving the Google permit, DHEC denied the waterworks permit, and the utility came back with a compromise reduction.
Then DHEC staff came back with a "graduated" permit that allowed the waterworks to take the amount it requested for one year, then stepped down how much could be taken for the next three until the waterworks could take only the volume DHEC previously permitted.
That's the permit the department is sticking with.
"As required by the DHEC Board-approved Groundwater Management Plan, the Department is required to protect against potential adverse impacts due to over pumping in areas of concern within the aquifer," the department wrote to notify the utility.