State officials will conduct a rare review of its regulators' decision to approve Google's draw of 549 million gallons of groundwater per year from a major aquifer beneath Charleston.
It might not be long before the S.C. Health and Environmental Control Board is faced with another contentious water review, as well.
Mount Pleasant Waterworks officials say they will appeal a decision that continued to deny their utility more groundwater.
All of this adds to an emerging statewide water war among users that led to a shakeup of the department's water bureau.
The board could take up Google as soon as its Dec. 12 meeting.
The review comes after an advisory committee of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments voted to deny the Google permit. The Coastal Conservation League also sued to stop it.
Google wanted to triple the gallons it draws in order to help cool servers for a $600 million expansion of its operation near Moncks Corner. The company is permitted to draw about 180 million gallons per year.
The Google withdrawal would be enough per day to fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools. A utility waterline is under construction that would provide that much surface water to the company — at a cost.
While approving the permit, DHEC staff required Google to "make all efforts to reduce the regular demand on groundwater; reserve the groundwater for peak demand times or as a backup water supply; and, develop alternative water sources."
Google spokesman Peter Schottenfels said the permit application complied with DHEC regulations and satisfied the DHEC standards for granting permits.
"We trust the DHEC Board to conduct their objective review in accordance with DHEC process and guidelines, and we fully intend to comply with the permit requirements," Schottenfels said.
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.
Meanwhile, in Mount Pleasant the town waterworks asked to be able to pull 2,409 million gallons per year.
DHEC denied the request, saying the waterworks could buy any additional volume from Charleston Water System, where it already buys more than half of the 2.7 billion gallons per year it sells to 36,000 commercial and residential customers.
After waterworks officials objected, 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.
"A declining withdrawal is not what we asked for," said Clay Duffie, the waterworks general manager.
The utility needs the extra water to maintain supplies cost-effectively for a community that has been one of the faster growing in the region. "It's unreasonable and lacks supporting science. We're very concerned we're being singled out."
The Waterworks on Monday formally objected to the latest permit, but Duffie said he expects the permit to stand, and the utility will appeal to the board to review it.
Whatever the DHEC board decides on either permit could potentially be challenged in the state Administrative Law Court.
Emily Cedzo, of the league, called the Google permit review an unusual departure for the board, which routinely declines the league's calls for a review. The league has opposed issuing the permit without restrictions, such as a reduction in the volume or a commitment to use surface water.
The review "is very uncommon for issues about which we raise concerns," she said.
"It means the DHEC Board is listening to the more than 500 Lowcountry residents who sent emails asking for reconsideration of the permit. We look forward to having the opportunity to have our case presented and to weigh in on our concerns with Google’s proposal," Cedzo said.