NEWS: Environmentalists laud regulatory agency’s water plan efforts

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By Lindsay Street, Statehouse correspondent  |  The state’s water regulatory agency is seeking more public input than ever, which environmentalists say gives them hope  for adequate protection of the state’s massive but limited water resource.

After Google’s Berkeley County site requested in March to withdraw millions of gallons from a groundwater aquifer followed by  a leadership change at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), environmentalists say the agency now has  better communication.

“They want to work with folks,” said Emily Cedzo, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League’s director of air, water and public health. “Their communication with local stakeholders, in my mind, has changed drastically and it’s gotten much better. The bottom line is that everyone is working more efficiently with the same goals in mind but there is still a lot more work to be done.”

In what is considered a major step forward, community input is being gathered now for regional groundwater use plans, and the regulatory agency is working with multiple partners in the lead up to next year’s statewide water use plan, which will supplant the 2004 plan.

Conservation groups say such state-level planning is more important than ever now because people and businesses are using more water and because the federal government may loosen some of its environmental requirements , throwing more of water regulation to states.

Spring transition

DHEC in May altered the makeup of its Bureau of Water, which regulates surface and groundwater withdrawals. The agency’s environmental chief, Myra Reece, wrote in an email that the head of the Water Bureau, David Baize, would move into an advisory role and she named Mark Hollis as interim director.

“We cannot take the future availability of water resources, both groundwater and surface water, for granted,” Reece said in a letter to staff at the time. Several months after being named interim, Hollis is still heading of the bureau. But DHEC said it plans to post the job this fall.

When asked to clarify if the change in leadership was in response to industrial or agricultural demand, DHEC spokesman Chris Augustine submitted this statement to Statehouse Report:

“To provide DHEC the ability to focus on this issue and potential resolutions, David Baize, our subject expert in water resource management, was asked to take on the role of Water Resource Policy Advisor in Environmental Affairs Administration. This dedication of resources and other proactive measures will help ensure sustainability and availability of water resources for all users.”

Since the change, the bureau has hosted five public input sessions for water issues. Prior to the shakeup, however, the bureau had already received public input and approved a plan for Trident region.

“There has been a commitment to having that strong public engagement and having those conversations about water planning from the top down in the agency,” Conservation Voters of South Carolina Executive Director John Tynan told Statehouse Report. “I’m glad to see that despite the changes in DHEC that has continued.”

Tynan said his group focuses on getting citizen involvement — which is exactly what DHEC has encouraged over the last few months while developing groundwater plans.

Groundwater microcosm

About 22 percent of all water usage in the state comes from groundwater, according to a 2015 DHEC report. Furthermore, the state’s hydrology office reports there is about 57 trillion gallons of water stored in the state’s coastal plain aquifers which serve about 1 million people. The biggest use of groundwater is for public water supply (39.1 billion gallons) followed by irrigation for crops (31.7 billion gallons) and industrial purposes (8.8 billion gallons).

When aquifers levels drop due to temporary draw-down or from too much use, groundwater “pulls” on surface water. Both resources are interconnected, according to the hydrology office.

Groundwater withdrawal permits are required for all designated capacity use areas where the requester wants to withdraw more than 3 million gallons per month. For counties on the coastal plan not in a capacity use area, any user drawing more than 3 million gallons must provide a written notice to DHEC.

While some capacity use areas are more than 30 years old, management plans are only now being drafted. The state’s first-ever plan, which was for Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, was completed in April. Other regional groundwater plans are currently undergoing public hearings around the state.

Groundwater management plans examine sources currently used, demand by type and amount, population and growth statistics, demand projections and conservation measures, under state law.

Cedzo

Cedzo said Google’s request “ramped up” interest in groundwater in the state.

“We realized pretty quickly that we lacked any plan in place to manage our groundwater,” she said. “It’s been this huge issue that has finally been highlighted.”

She said DHEC was approving permits for capacity use areas, but there was no planning. Cedzo said the groundwater plans have heartened her and her team at Coastal Conservation League.

“They keep referring to the plan as a living document and have told us that it’s something we will continue to update and strengthen over time. It’s certainly not perfect and I believe it reads as more of a report than anything, but it’s a step in the right direction. I think the more they cultivate these relationships with stakeholders, the better things will be for everyone and for our groundwater,” she said.

Work still left to be done

Cedzo said the current groundwater plans are a good start, but her group wants to see more strategic planning. For example, if there is water scarcity, then who has their wells turned off or scaled back?

“A lot of folks keep saying that we don’t want to be another California … We got a lot of folks waking up to the fact that we’re using more and more water,” Cedzo said. “We now have the opportunity to proactively plan ahead and we want to make sure we take the time to do just that.”

Tynan

Tynan said his group planned to continue conversations with legislators and citizens. He said he didn’t know of a specific policy that would cure all that ails S.C. water, but “there’s a lot of good things in terms of moving water forward.”

“It’s less of a specific legislative thing and more of a way we look at our water management and water resources,” Tynan said. “What’s next is us figuring out the processes and the plans and the people to look at water on a holistic level.”

When lawmakers reconvene in January, a House subcommittee has water on its agenda, Tynan said. With the state water plan in the works and the potential for loosening federal regulations, state lawmakers may carry a heavier burden of protecting water, he said.

A request to DHEC seeking its timeline for the state water plan went unanswered.

Earlier this week, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt met with industry and public leaders in Orangeburg to talk about loosening federal water regulations by rescinding an Obama-era rule that extended Clean Water Act protection to more waterways. Since its implementation in 2015, conservatives have railed against the rule, calling it a land-grab by a federal agency.

“(With the rule gone) it shifts the responsibility to our state and local government to make sure they become the front lines of protecting our air and our water and our special places in South Carolina,” Tynan said. “We have to raise our voices as citizens to say we care about water quality.”

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