A year ago, the internet giant Google applied for a state permit to draw an additional 1.5 million gallons of water per day from underground aquifers for its Berkeley County data center.

That turned the tap on a quandary: Nobody knew how much water the company could draw without disrupting public water systems and other nearby industries.  

And officials don't know to this day because the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control hasn't set a maximum capacity use for the region. That's the amount of groundwater that can be taken from the aquifers underground without depleting them.

What is known is that residents and industry are taking out water faster than it can be replenished. The levels are dropping in many of the monitoring wells and never really recovered from the drought 20 years ago, the state says.

Yet, withdrawal permits are seldom denied in the South Carolina regulatory environment and applications are often no more complex than checking boxes on a form.

Where does the water come from?

Groundwater aquifers are massive, interconnected layers underground 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 surface water supply — rivers and lakes — already is shrinking as demand builds pressure and the climate warms. That supply provides most of the drinking water in the coastal region and the state.

More than 333 million gallons of groundwater per day are now used by industries, farms and other types of well owners across the state, according to U.S. Geological Survey records. One billion gallons of surface water per day is used statewide.

So how the state manages surface and groundwater resources has massive repercussions for its people and quality of life.

So far, critics say, the state isn't managing it.

"The stark reality is that DHEC, despite having the groundwater program for decades, has never inched above merely a permit-issuing, data-storing program," said Peter Stone, a retired hydrologist and former DHEC staffer.

The program "just seems to be more a monitoring process than anything else," said Emily Cedzo, the land, water and wildlife program director for the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League. "Checking boxes on paper."

A Freedom of Information Act review by The Post and Courier of 133 new groundwater withdrawal applications from the past 10 years largely confirms that. A few applications were little more than checking the boxes. The files for many were thin folders.

Most didn't include much research or analysis of the potential impacts on nearby users. When they did, the work was done by a private contractor hired by the applicant and reviewed and signed off by DHEC staffers.

Modifications were requested at times "because our technical staff works with potential permittees and provides them with the most current data and availability of groundwater before a permit is even formally requested," said Tim Kelly, a previous DHEC spokesman.

No applications were denied. Most first-time applicants got what they asked for.

There were a few exceptions to the lack of depth in the applications, projects where DHEC staffers did ask for more information. The most prominent was the Google file — about 6 inches thick and more than twice as large as the next largest file. A yellow "Rush" tag was affixed to it.

'Inadequate staff'

In August 2017, the Google permit was opposed by the public and companies that draw from the same aquifer. DHEC told Google to demonstrate their permit request for cooling water complied with the state's newly completed groundwater management plan for the region.

The new groundwater plan is a 160-page document that says permits will be decided based on "reasonable use," including effect on groundwater levels. But it doesn't set specific limits.

Google has sat on that permit revision for nearly a year in the wake of the public opposition. The company "may reactivate our application though timing is unknown," spokeswoman Amy Atlas told The Post and Courier.

About 340 facilities across the state withdraw groundwater. Monitoring what they want to withdraw is a job state officials admit they cannot keep up with.

DHEC noted in its current budget request that "staff overseeing this number of facilities do not have adequate time to assist with increasingly complex water quantity planning issues, assess data, perform complex audits, or participate in in-depth stakeholder processes."

The agency asked for two new hydrologists to double its staff.

"Inadequate staff severely limits the Agency's ability to properly monitor and permit water quantity in the state. If left unfunded, given S.C.'s current growth rate and increased water demand, there is a high potential for future water shortages, which impacts major components of S.C.'s economy," the request noted.

Not to mention a thirsty population.

Groundwater is dynamic. It tends to seep through cracks and collect in pockets, while slipping toward the ocean like surface water. How much is down there changes with climate and withdrawals, said Bruce Campbell, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist.

It's out of sight and largely unquantified.

An estimate of how much water might be flowing underground through the region at any given time is from a 2009 report compiled by the Geological Survey using 2004 data. That was 3.6 billion to 3.7 billion gallons across North and South Carolina, which share aquifers and aquifer flow.

The Geological Survey is now in the process of updating and creating an interactive model from that report and expects to complete it later this year.

Most of what is known now about aquifers in the Southeast comes from testing in wells and limited radioactive isotope tests that show groundwater capable of moving hundreds of miles along the coast — very, very slowly. But individual wells might be in relatively enclosed nooks that don't replenish as fast as other spots in the aquifer.

"While there's not an unlimited amount of groundwater in the South Carolina coastal plain, there is a lot of water," Campbell said. "However, there are practical limits on how much can be extracted and extracted without causing problems."

Among those problems is what's called a cone of depression — a drop in the water level in a pocket of the aquifer. If groundwater drops, wells must be dug deeper to get to it, and surface water levels might drop, too, driving up costs through an area that could stretch across several counties.

DHEC withdrawal permits technically are decided based on whether the withdrawal will worsen that cone, shrink the supply of nearby wells or cause the owners to dig deeper for it.

But "many of our well sites are experiencing downward trends. Substantial number of sites had little to no recovery after the 1998-2002 drought," said the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in a 2015 groundwater data report. DNR operates most of the monitoring wells in the state.

'Willing to say no'

DHEC has been able to somewhat regulate existing groundwater withdrawal limits, if not put an overall cap on how much water can be taken out.

The agency issued 30 citations for withdrawal permit violations in 2017 after issuing 16 the year before, according to staff. It's reduced withdrawal for about a third of the existing permit holders when they applied to take out more.

In part, the new groundwater management plans establish “Capacity Use Areas” across the state. That means an area where excessive groundwater withdrawal "presents potential adverse effects to the natural resource or poses a threat to public health, safety, or economic welfare or where conditions pose a significant threat."

But, to date, versions the plan created for various regions do not set specific limits on how much can be safely withdrawn.

"There have been no changes to the groundwater application process," said DHEC spokeswoman Cristi Moore, except that DHEC permit decisions now are reviewed by regional planning councils to make sure they don't violate the groundwater plan for the region.

Cedzo said that's not enough. 

"They have to be willing to say no," she said.

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Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

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