Tapping groundwater (copy) (copy) (copy)

How an aquifer works. File/U.S. Geological Survey/Provided 

Water is being taken out so fast from South Carolina's rivers, lakes and aquifers that the supply soon won't be able to replenish.

Yet, state regulators still haven't set limits for how much can be safely withdrawn.

It might be up to a group of about-to-be-convened resident councils to determine.

A 2017 update to the State Water Plan called for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to form eight advisory councils, one for each of the state's major river basins.

The update was written amid two controversies involving industrial-scale withdrawals from the Edisto River for an sprawling potato farm and the withdrawal of millions of gallons from an aquifer below Charleston for the internet giant Google.

The councils' job is to advise the Legislature on new approaches for managing the water in and below those basins. These approaches could include calls for changing the rules governing both groundwater and surface withdrawals.

A DNR committee currently is thrashing out details regarding who will sit on those councils from among various conservation, agricultural, industrial and recreational interests.

The job won't be easy.

"When it comes to water management, there's nothing more critical to our public health and economic future," said Gerrit Jobsis, the regional director for the conservation group American Rivers. But water management currently is little more than a "race to the bottom," he said.

Each day, businesses and individuals in the state tap 1 billion gallons of surface water and 333 million gallons of groundwater. Demand is rising. Supplies are shrinking.

The state's current groundwater plan says permits will be decided based on "reasonable use," including effect on groundwater levels. But it doesn't set specific limits. First time permits approved by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control usually allow the amount of withdrawal asked.

Even getting groundwater limits to fit in with surface water limits will be difficult. River basins cross more than one aquifer, and the aquifer layers stretch under more than one basin.

But the need is clear. 

As demand increases from a thirsty, growing population, the abundant fresh water supply in the rainy Carolinas is shrinking. Researchers have found the mountain streams that are a key source of water for the region are losing flow and have been since the 1970s.

Meanwhile, groundwater levels are dropping in many of the monitoring wells and never really recovered from the drought 20 years ago, the state says.

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 new councils can make recommendations, but it will be up to the Legislature to change current regulations, said Ken Rentiers, DNR's deputy director for land, water and conservation.

"Our approach is to provide a foundation of sound science including the surface water assessment and basin models, groundwater assessment and models, as well as a 50-year demand forecast," Rentiers said.

For more information, call DNR's Land, Water and Conservation Division at 1-803-734-3893.

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