State regulators have told Mount Pleasant Waterworks they will cut in half the utility's permitted share of groundwater. The move could end up costing customers more at the tap.
The proposed 57 percent draw reduction could crimp planning and in setting up taps for new customers in one of the fastest growing communities on the East Coast. It also could force the water company to buy more water from other utilities.
The reduction is one of the first real bites from a revamped state Water Bureau and comes after Mount Pleasant 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.
The new limits must be reviewed by a regional technical committee.
S.C. Department of Heath and Environmental Control officials would not comment Friday beyond providing the letter sent to the utility that said the new limit would be based on previous reported usage and need.
Waterworks officials and Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie, who also serves as a Waterworks commissioner, said they would not comment before a Monday meeting of the commission where the proposed restriction and the utility's response will be discussed.
"We are very concerned," said Rick Crosby, the commission chairman.
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.
"The problem you're going to see a water utility have with this is in planning for growth and providing infrastructure for growth," said Emily Cedzo, the air, water and public health projects director for the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League.
More troubling is that DHEC hasn't given utilities a detailed explanation for its policy change, she said.
"There's just no transparency," Cedzo said. "It's hard to know what they're doing there."
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 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 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.
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 withdrawal to 548 million gallons per year to cool its servers at the Berkeley County center it is expanding.
"We've asked the company to provide additional information as we continue to review its permit application," said DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick.
The Waterworks and the Conservation League were the two most vocal opponents when Google first proposed the increase two years ago. The controversy exacerbated public concerns over how DHEC regulates water use across the state, and it led the company to withdraw its request. It since refiled a new one.
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.
The state still lacks any published plan to limit withdrawals by large scale users.
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.