By Clay Duffie
The groundwater captured in the Cretaceous Aquifers in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina is ancient and certainly pre-industrial, pristine, not having the influences of man. This formation was created some 66-144 million years ago when the ocean covered South Carolina all the way to the fall line, which is where the Piedmont begins near Columbia. This invaluable resource is precious and needs protecting now and for the future, as it sustains life.
For over 50 years, Mount Pleasant Waterworks (MPW) has relied on the water in this aquifer system, historically known as the Middendorf Aquifer, to meet our growing community’s need for drinking water, fire protection and economic development. Beginning in the 1980s, the leadership at MPW recognized the importance of wise stewardship of this resource and began our campaign to protect the groundwater in the Trident Area, as it is elsewhere in the Coastal Plain. We wrote letter after letter to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), S.C. Department of Natural Resources and state legislators. Finally, in 2000, the Groundwater Use and Reporting Act became law. Section 49-5-60 of the law outlines the process for managing groundwater resources through Capacity Use Designation. As part of process, a regional groundwater management plan was to be developed involving the stakeholders in the region to establish a framework for withdrawal permit considerations. Capacity Use Designation was declared by the DHEC Board in 2002; however, the required plan was never completed. Now, 15 years later, DHEC is anxious to develop the plan. Why?
Google has applied for a permit to increase its permitted consumption of this pristine groundwater to cool its computers in Berkeley County. DHEC is in a situation whereby it cannot legally issue the permit until a regional groundwater management plan is approved by the DHEC Board. So now, DHEC is fast-tracking the development of the plan to accommodate Google, in hopes of board approval in May. As part of the plan development process, a public hearing is scheduled today.
The good news is we are now working on the regional groundwater management plan. What we need to ensure is that the plan is adequately vetted among the stakeholders to create a fair and reasonable framework for allocating this limited resource.
When MPW first heard about Google’s withdrawal permit request, we proposed a temporary solution until the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) could complete its groundwater model update and we could thoughtfully and collaboratively develop a regional groundwater management plan. This model, developed over the years with financial support from MPW, could help predict and understand the influences of the various users of the aquifer. Google said no to our proposal. In fact, Google refused to share their alternative analysis to see if other sources of water are available. We know there are.
Reasonable use and responsible management of the aquifer is all MPW asks for. When we saw water table declines in the early 1990s, MPW worked with the USGS developing predictive models for evaluating the long term effect of increased pumping. MPW began developing water resource management strategies that included both groundwater sources and surface water options, in addition to aquifer storage and recovery. In an effort to begin lowering our demand on the aquifer, MPW signed a 30-year water purchase agreement with Charleston Water System in 1995. Soon, the aquifer began to recharge as we implemented our water resource management plan. This was not cheap. MPW spent over $50 million to secure sustainable resources.
MPW realizes as a public water provider, we are a large user of the resource, and we rely on and actively support the sustainability of the resource to meet the growing daily demands of our community. The water MPW withdraws from the aquifer supplies clean, safe drinking water and protects public health — sustaining life. We hope the Regional Groundwater Management Plan will require that using groundwater for single pass cooling for computers should be the last resort, only if no other water source is reasonably available. We also hope the Management Plan will be developed with the long range sustainability of this resource as the main goal.
We must protect this ancient, pristine resource. Please join MPW and let your voice be heard at the public hearing at North Charleston City Hall today at 5:30 p.m.
Clay Duffie is the general manager of Mount Pleasant Waterworks.