South Carolina is home to some of the most precious water resources in the nation. In particular, groundwater may arguably be the most precious natural resource we have. Many of our aquifers are several million years old and in pristine condition. No matter, these essential water sources face the threat of depletion due to a changing climate, population growth, and industrial expansion. Given that many of South Carolina’s groundwater resources stretch to the coast, there’s also the potential of saltwater intrusion due natural or manmade changes.
One of the difficulties of groundwater is our lack of updated, plentiful information given the challenge of monitoring and measuring the quality and quantity compared to that of surface water. This is where current and updated research is crucial.
Regional and State Water Planning
The SC Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and SC Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) are completing a basin modeling and planning process to better understand the current state of our water alongside future demands. The long-term goal of this work is to inform our State Water Plan.
It will involve the 5 following steps:
- Develop surface water availability assessments
- Develop groundwater availability assessments
- Develop water demand forecasts
- Create regional water plans
- Create a state water plan
We are taking an active role as a stakeholder in the modeling and planning processes in order to contribute to an effective and sustainable plan. We will ensure that the regional and state plans balance science with the needs of current and future users so we can make sound legislative decisions.
The League is creating smart, equitable solutions that complement our growing economy and population, but also protect ecological value of our groundwater in the long-term. We will achieve this goal by working with agencies to provide transparency on how our water is used, strengthening groundwater regulations, and improving the water efficiency practices of all users. A clear, strong regulatory structure is a key component to comprehensive water conservation, as is abundant information on the current state of our groundwater.
Google: An example close to home
In late 2015, Google’s Berkeley County Data Center applied for and received a permit to withdraw up to half a million gallons of water per day from the Charleston Aquifer. Less than a year later, the tech giant reapplied, seeking to triple that amount to a staggering 1.5 million gallons of water per day. That’s 549 million gallons of water per year.
The Conservation League, alongside several local water utilities, submitted formal comments on Google’s permit application to DHEC. The state agency is tasked with the responsibility of permitting water withdrawal. Our primary concerns revolve around the source of Google’s withdrawal. The Charleston Aquifer (previously known as the Middendorf) is a pristine groundwater source that’s over 83 million years old. This should be conserved to the highest extent possible, whereby its primary use should be human consumption at a sustainable rate.
Google’s data centers are unique in design, using water in their HVAC systems to cool their servers that produce a significant amount of heat from electricity. However, groundwater is not the only water source Google uses. Many of their other data centers have made significant efforts to withdraw from less impactful sources including easier-to-monitor surface water, the sea, and even recycled water. The League fully supports continuous exploration of alternative sources at the Berkeley County Data Center.
How to make your voice heard
A groundwater management plan will determine how and to what extent groundwater is pumped by large organizations like Google in the Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester region. It is imperative that we participate in the drafting of DHEC’s management plan, which is expected to be finalized in May. A robust plan will prepare our region to adequately respond to requests and protect essential water resources.
While Google is an important member of our community, the Coastal Conservation League believes strongly in safeguarding invaluable water sources for public health and exploring sustainable alternatives. We need your help to protect precious groundwater resources in coastal South Carolina by providing public comment.
To make sure your voice is heard on this issue, we encourage you to attend a DHEC public hearing on the groundwater plan on Wednesday, March 29. The meeting will take place at North Charleston City Hall from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. At this meeting, you are invited to speak or submit written comments.
Here are several recommendations we believe are essential in the planning and creation of an effective groundwater management plan:
- Currently, DHEC is using old data from 2004 to draft this plan, despite efforts by experts to generate new data and an updated groundwater model by 2018. We believe DHEC should not approve any current or additional permit requests until new data is released.
- All permit applications should require a justification for the withdrawal of groundwater from an identified source and specify how water will be used and the largest amount of withdrawal anticipated. A thorough alternatives analysis should be required to explain why a particular groundwater source is needed over other available sources. Insufficient applications should not be approved.
- A groundwater management plan should include groundwater model updates that indicate how much groundwater each applicant is fully permitted to pump. While some applicants might never pump the allotted permitted amount, a complete picture of groundwater withdrawal is important for future decision-making and permit approvals.
- DHEC should require annual or periodic water audits to determine whether the applicant is wasting water or applying proper water conservation techniques.
- Each groundwater applicant that receives a permit should be surveyed by the Department of Natural Resources every five years to determine if the applicant predicts a need to increase pumping as regional population increases.
If you are unable to attend the March 29 public hearing, you can email or mail your comments to DHEC staff by April 7 (date was previously noted as April 26, but changed by DHEC to now be April 7). Emails should be sent to Robert Devlin at DevlinRJ@dhec.sc.gov. Mailed comments can be sent to the following address:
Division of Water Monitoring, Assessment & Protection, Bureau of Water
2600 Bull Street
Columbia, SC 29201