Friday, November 21, 2008

The good stuff: Water is South Carolina's most precious and strained resource

The Lake Marion Regional Water System's treatment plant located is located off S.C. Highway 6 near Santee. (Photo/Jim Huff, Santee Cooper)
By Lydia Dishman
Contributing Writer

Bud Badr’s voice is the kind that falls welcomingly on the ear, much like a good, soaking rain falls on parched earth.

Badr laughs easily and often during conversation, which is a good thing when you consider that as the chief hydrologist of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, what he’s talking about it is a serious issue — drought.

The availability of water in South Carolina made headlines all summer, especially with regards to business.

Once upon a time, the textile industry boomed in South Carolina, in part because of the availability of water. Though the textile manufacturers have pulled up stakes, several other industries took their place, including automotive and advanced materials. Most recently, Google and mega-logistics operations, such as Jafza International, have put down roots in South Carolina, and all the companies require a plentiful water supply.

With all that economic growth, the state’s population has more than doubled in the past 50 years, bringing the total to more than 4 million thirsty bodies.

Some other facts to consider:

Even though 99% of the state’s water is underground, because of convenience and availability, surface water from rivers and lakes is the source for the major water suppliers in the state.

We share water with North Carolina and Georgia because, even though South Carolina contains all or most of four major river basins, the headwaters of the two largest are in North Carolina and another is in Georgia. This complex issue has already triggered U.S. Supreme Court involvement to ensure that North and South Carolina share the water fairly.

No limitations exist as to the amount of water that can be withdrawn from a river, and groundwater withdrawals are regulated only in coastal counties.

“The question is,” Badr asked, “How much water do you really need?”

He explained that South Carolina has gotten an average of 48 inches of annual rainfall for the past 100 years. “We lose about 36 inches for evaporation,” he said, “leaving approximately 20 inches available in our streams. If we don’t use that, it goes to (the) ocean.”

Badr took a deep breath and continued. “South Carolina’s total use is 5 inches per 31,000 square miles, of which 98 percent is used by hydropower, then by municipalities. If we have that average rainfall, then we have four times what we need — but it doesn’t mean we have it when we need it, because of floods and droughts, and more users with more demand.”

Rainfall is 30% lower than normal and stream flows are at historic lows, according to Badr, which is precisely why we are where we are now.

Badr has co-written a plan for water use in the state, which says in part, “Water is a limited natural resource and is a major factor for economic development.” It also states, “There are regional and temporal variations in the amount of available water and in the demand for water, and there are both intrastate and interstate competing demands for that water.”

To avoid over-allocating and to know how much is available for all sites for future use, Badr said that DNR will be working with the Department of Health and Environmental Control on permitting.

David Baize, assistant bureau chief at DHEC, said, “Droughts are hard to deal with; they cause a lot of grief. But they are typically shorter-term events, even though we’ve been in and out of one for the past 10 years. Dealing with the effects of drought and water management planning can overlap, but they are not necessarily the same thing.”

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