The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control wants to cut by more than half the amount of water Mount Pleasant Waterworks can pump from deep underground to help protect an important aquifer that serves the entire region. It’s reasonable for a state agency to be a good steward of a valuable natural resource, but it’s unreasonable to refuse to work toward a compromise.
So it was refreshing to see a regional advisory committee side with Mount Pleasant Waterworks in urging DHEC to consider cutting the waterworks’ groundwater permit by just 39%. DHEC could simply ignore the panel and continue to seek a 57% percent reduction, but it shouldn’t. Because as MPW General Manager Clay Duffie sees it, his back is against a wall.
He says MPW rates would have to rise to cover the cost of buying more water from neighboring utilities to replace lost capacity and supply new development, which is already being fed by purchases from Charleston Water System. MPW’s bond rating also could be downgraded. Tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure could be stranded. And, according to Mr. Duffie, such a deep cut in MPW’s groundwater permit would leave the utility and the town unable to properly plan for the future.
State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, rightly called DHEC’s proposal “draconian and unacceptable,” adding that MPW is offering a reasonable compromise.
At the same time, DHEC appears ready to let Google triple its permitted withdrawal to 1.5 million gallons daily from the same aquifer, although it is farther inland and beyond the “cone of depression” that has DHEC concerned about saltwater intrusion and land subsidence.
We’re just scratching the surface of numerous competing interests. But suffice it to say, both sides have legitimate worries, and MPW’s concerns must be viewed in the context of allowing Google a bigger gulp.
Though Mount Pleasant has put a literal dent in the aquifer over the years, well-water levels have been rising steadily since about 2004, thanks to MPW reducing its take. Hydrogeologists don’t know how far the aquifer can be drawn down before it is damaged, but they know it hasn’t happened at its lowest point so far.
So there’s room for compromise while ensuring the aquifer continues to rebound.
Household conservation efforts will help. No one’s being asked to scrimp on water yet, but we can stop wasting it by overwatering lawns, washing cars too frequently or taking 30-minute showers. Consumers in dry Western states have proven this works.
And if Google wants to continue to expand in the Lowcountry, it needs to commit to reducing and eventually eliminating its groundwater use. It can afford to tie into municipal water supplies or tap surface supplies directly.
DHEC deserves credit for prioritizing the health of the aquifer, but it also needs to allow Mount Pleasant Waterworks enough water to meet its near-term demand, ramp up conservation efforts and plot a path forward.
We think the glass is half full, and it’s big enough to share — preferably at a negotiating table, not in a courtroom.