Top Five Water Issues Facing South Carolina
by Mullen Taylor, an attorney with the law firm of McAngus Goudelock & Courie in Columbia
The value of our water resources simply cannot be overstated. Indeed, 95% of American voters value water over any other service they receive, including heat and electricity. Businesses and industries rank the value of water second only to electricity. Impairment to the quantity or quality of water negatively impacts public health and safety, which in turn, harms our overall tax base, community infrastructure, and the ability to attract and retain residents and businesses. Businesses, water managers and policy leaders have a responsibility to protect South Carolina's water resources. The following water issues are those that I believe South Carolina will be facing in the future.
1. Balancing Water Uses
From 2001 through 2009, South Carolina's water use increased 25%, from approximately 11.8 trillion gallons to approximately 16 trillion gallons. Hydropower makes up the largest use of water in South Carolina, followed by thermoelectric, drinking water supply, industrial, agriculture, golf course irrigation, mining and aquaculture. Additionally, state and federal law recognize and protect water flows needed by fish and other aquatic life as well as flows needed to sustain water quality and recreation. As population grows, our waters may not easily accommodate all these uses.
The Southeast is already experiencing this difficulty today. In 2009, a federal court ruled that Lake Lanier, a reservoir in Georgia owned and operated by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, cannot be used to provide drinking water supply to the City of Atlanta at the expense of hydropower generation, causing Atlanta to suffer severe water shortages if a legislative solution is not found. Last year, Santee Cooper's hydropower license renewal proceeding before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was rocked by a draft biological opinion from National Marine Fisheries Service that Santee Cooper's hydropower operations will jeopardize the existence of the endangered shortnose sturgeon if costly alterations to hydropower operations are not imposed. We will see more water use conflicts in the future.
2. Watching Surface Water Permitting in Action
Last year, the South Carolina legislature enacted the Surface Water Withdrawal, Permitting, Use and Reporting Act which, for the first time in the State, regulates surface water withdrawals. The Act provides significant protections to owners of impoundments, withdrawals for drinking water and energy purposes, and all pre-existing surface water withdrawers. The Act's preferential treatment to drinking water suppliers and electric utilities likely reflects our long-term priorities. An issue to watch is whether the Act's protection of other existing water users may stifle the development of new technologies or businesses that put water to more beneficial use and provide greater value to our economy. It remains to be seen whether the Act will foster sound water management policy or merely guard the status quo.
3. Getting Serious About Water Conservation
Severe droughts in recent years have moved our neighboring States to get serious about water conservation. In contrast, South Carolina has yet to take meaningful action to instill a culture of conservation. Our new surface water permitting legislation requires conservation plans for water withdrawers but it does not go far enough. Water conservation not only saves money but also helps the State secure its water resources in the event we must litigate our water rights. Courts frown upon wasteful use of water and we could lose water allocation battles if we fail to show that our residents and businesses use water responsibly and efficiently.
4. Addressing Stormwater Pollution Through Land Use Planning and Design
Pollutants entering our waters through stormwater runoff constitute the greatest threat to water quality in South Carolina. During rain events, precipitation falling on pavement and other impervious surfaces carry bacteria, sediment, chemicals, fertilizers, and grease into rivers, lakes, streams and the ocean. The long-term solution to this problem requires cities and counties to take a more sensitive and creative approach to land use and development. Preserving, restoring or creating natural vegetated areas such as greenways, parks, and riparian buffers, and changing design regulations for parking lots and roads, can reduce the volume of stormwater runoff.
5. Paying to Replace Our Aging Water and Sewer Infrastructure
Crumbling water and sewer infrastructure results in leaking drinking water pipes, escalating replacement costs, and untreated wastewater discharging into our rivers and streams. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, South Carolina needs an investment of $1.25 billion dollars in water infrastructure over the next twenty years, and $698 million dollars in sewer infrastructure. Financing this enormous cost is daunting. No one wants to pay more in water and sewer rates, yet state and federal funding is woefully inadequate to meet the challenge we face. This is a problem that we cannot ignore any longer.
Mullen Taylor is an attorney with the law firm of McAngus Goudelock & Courie in Columbia South Carolina. Her practice focuses on water law, municipal law, and constitutional law. A native of Greenville, she graduated from the University of South Carolina with a Bachelor of Arts degree and earned a Master of Arts degree from Columbia College. After a twelve-year career in state and local government, Ms. Taylor obtained a Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. In law school, she served as law clerk to the Governor's Water Law Committee, helping draft the final committee report. Her practice has included representation of SC Department of Natural Resources, the Governor's Savannah River Committee, water and sewer utilities, local governments and private industry. She is admitted to practice in the South Carolina Bar and the United States District Court, South Carolina District. She is a member of the American Bar Association's Section of Environment, Energy and Resources. Ms. Taylor was selected by her peers for inclusion in the 2011 edition of Best Lawyers in America in the practice of water law. Ms. Taylor currently serves as the chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Congaree Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization that advocates for improved water quality of the Lower Saluda, Lower Broad and Congaree Rivers.
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