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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: Bluffton's brown water should intensify SC efforts to ensure safety

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Bluffton bourbon: This glass of tap water came from a Bluffton home in 2020. Katrina Pannazzo/Provided

The most recent installment in The Post and Courier’s “Boom and Balance” series, on Bluffton’s discolored tap water, underscores two important points: It’s vital for local governments, including utilities, to make the necessary infrastructure investments to stay ahead of their population growth and ensure that existing residents don’t see their quality of life erode when new ones move in. And running water systems is a hard job.

As reporter Michael Cuglietta makes clear, the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority is struggling with providing clear, appealing drinking water to the rapidly growing number of customers in its service area. Too often, full bathtubs look like muddy rivers, and glasses of tap water resemble whiskey. And while utility officials assure customers this yellow or yellow-brown water is safe to drink, people are understandably not happy about it. Even pricey water filters don’t help for very long. As one woman told Mr. Cuglietta: “Honestly, I wish we could move.”

The utility has 65,000 connections and an annual growth rate of about 5%, and its chief of plant operations admitted it has failed to stay ahead of the water demand. And while it has identified $52 million to double the treatment capacity of its Purrysburg Water Treatment Plant from 15 million to 30 million gallons per day, that project is still at least two years from completion. And even when completed, the authority’s total treatment capacity still will be 1 million gallons a day less than its peak demand day last year — an indication that it already should be working on plans for additional capacity.

It’s the oscillating demand that can cause the problem. During winter months, the utility needs only about 20 million gallons per day to meet demand, but that can rise to almost 35 million in the summer. Further spikes in demand during a day add to the challenge. A recent wave of discolored water apparently stemmed from fire hydrant testing, which released manganese and iron that had accumulated in the pipes. While the water pressure hasn’t dropped enough to demand boil-water advisories, that more hazardous scenario could occur if the utility doesn’t do more to plan for growth.

It should be noted that the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority is a relatively big player among South Carolina’s water providers, and therefore should have the financial means and experienced personnel to handle these challenges. Many other communities are served by smaller, less capable systems. The newspaper's Uncovered series highlighted particular problems in the Clarendon County town of Summerton, where pumps broke down, safety equipment was removed, water tanks had sludge accumulate inside and weed killer and ant poison were scattered near wells — all potentially more concerning that the aesthetic issues Bluffton residents face when they turn on their taps.

About 1 of every 6 homes in the state relies on these smaller systems, which are far more likely to violate state or federal regulations designed to ensure safe drinking water. The Department of Health and Environmental Control has recommended consolidating these smaller water systems or folding them into nearby, regional systems, and we urge state and local officials to do what they can to make that happen. While South Carolina recently received both COVID relief and infrastructure funds to improve water service, the state should not invest in propping up tiny systems that are more likely to experience problems again once the benefit of any recent upgrade fades. State lawmakers should see to it that DHEC has all the carrots and sticks it needs to require consolidations of small systems.

As we’ve noted, contaminated water ultimately impacts even those who don’t drink it, through others’ health problems, higher taxes for Medicare, Medicaid and health insurance for state and local government employees and lost economic opportunity. Running a water system — like running an electrical utility — is hard work, requiring constant vigilance to meet evolving regulations, address fluctuating demand and ensure the safety and satisfaction of every customer. Our state’s regulatory approach should evolve to recognize those high stakes.

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