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July 2008

Quenching the Thirst
Written By: 
Sandy Lang
Photographs By: 
Jim Huff/Santee Cooper

Last summer, as a severe drought sapped the water supply across most of the Southeast, Earth’s most essential resource became a leading topic of conversation. Although the Lowcountry fared better than most other areas, the reality of being downstream from drought-stricken regions of the state pressed the matter home as water levels in our
reservoirs dropped to shocking levels

“The question of water and its availability and use is really with us now, front and center,” says South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster. He’s the same man whose office has cracked down on Internet predators and animal fighting. And lately, the state’s chief criminal prosecutor has gone to bat as an advocate for the state’s fresh-water sources—its rivers. Last year, when his office got word of North Carolina’s plans to allow tens of millions of gallons to be withdrawn each day from the Catawba River before it flows across the state line into South Carolina, McMaster petitioned for the issue to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, and that process is now underway. “It was a disaster in the making,” McMaster says. “We don’t yet have the water problems like they have out West, and we don’t want them.”

He’s not the only one who realizes the preciousness of freshwater and is pleased there’s renewed attention being paid to it. “This state has been blessed with ample water over the years, but two droughts, one right after another, have caught people’s attention. Plus the overall demand for water has picked up with growth,” says Andy Fairey, chief operating officer for Charleston Water System (CWS), provider of water to an estimated 400,000 people, a number that was growing by about 3,000 a year until new housing starts slowed in 2007.

Increases in demand throughout the Carolinas—while the two states were unable to sort out water management issues between themselves—triggered the Supreme Court involvement, which McMaster says will lead both states to map out current and projected water needs and uses and is expected to end in a resolution on sharing the Catawba’s water flow. Making good decisions in this case is critical, McMaster says, because “we can’t manufacture a river. If we lose the rivers, we’ve lost something big.”

With all that said, since we’re down here in Charleston—a few hours away from the drier Upstate, from the Catawba River crossing between York and Charlotte, and from the legislature in Columbia—should we give much worry to these water woes? Even in last year’s scorching summer drought, we didn’t have mandatory restrictions on local water use. But look closely at the South Carolina map. Officials tell us that many inland and Upstate water issues potentially affect Charleston, situated as our city is, downstream from everyone else. (The water of the Catawba, by the way, flows into the Wateree River and eventually into Lake Moultrie and the reservoir below, which happens to be a primary source of Charleston’s water supply.)

“People saw that Lake Moultrie was so low last year, but we were in a good position and especially fortunate to have a plentiful supply, even during the most severe part of the drought,” says Jenny Hagan, public relations manager for CWS. She says our water continued to flow last year—and does today—because it’s drawn from two sources: the Edisto River and a reservoir at the headwaters of the Cooper River that’s fed by releases from Lake Moultrie at the Pinopolis Dam. She says the utility’s good standing is due to the fact that Santee Cooper is required to release a minimum amount of water at the dam, both to preserve the CWS draw and to keep the saltwater line below the Jefferies Hydroelectric Station that also draws water there. Because of this, she says CWS weathered the worst drought conditions last year without having to impose water restrictions on users. But that doesn’t mean that water conservation isn’t important, Hagan emphasizes. “The good thing about the drought is that it raised people’s awareness that the drinking water supply is not unlimited, and we should value it. It’s to 
everyone’s advantage to use water wisely.”

She says household leaks and running toilets are the biggest water wasters, with a faulty toilet wasting upwards of 200 gallons a day—more than twice the average amount used by each Charleston resident daily. To conserve water and save on water bills, residents can install low-flow showerheads and faucets and make sure washing machines are full of clothes and dishwashers are full of dishes before using them. She also suggests watering lawns and gardens before dawn to limit evaporation and notes that CWS has joined with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new WaterSense program. Like the Energy Star ratings that show information about the electrical efficiency of an appliance, Water Sense provides data about the amount of water used by a particular toilet or washing machine. “We can give people more information about water-efficient appliances than ever before,” she notes. Consumers can even go on the EPA website ( to research water-efficient products, get tips on saving practices, and test the efficiency of the fixtures already in their houses. There is even a partnering program for busi​-nesses​ such as landscapers and manufacturers, retailers, and distributors of water-related products.

From River to Tap

Before we wash our clothes or cars, before the clean, treated water comes to our faucets, it falls from the sky as rain and washes down into streams and lakes and into our many rivers. Gerrit Jobsis knows much about our state’s river systems. As the Southeast’s director for American Rivers (a nonprofit advocacy group that reports 75,000 members nationally and about 1,000 in South Carolina), he’s a paid cheerleader for rivers and an instructor and negotiator for their protection and management. On a cool evening this spring, Jobsis gave a talk about rivers to a group of interested citizens in McClellanville. He explained why his organization has deemed the Catawba-Wateree River Basin the most endangered river in America.

“Charlotte is very thirsty, but it’s not just North Carolina. South Carolina also needs to get its house in order,” Jobsis says. “Both states still use 19th-century ideas for water management with no restrictions on usage. What’s needed is to have long-range plans and to take conservation steps to not squander the water that we have.”

The challenges are great, Jobsis adds, particularly with the fast-growing population in the Southeast and with predictions of future drought conditions due to climate change. But he also sees progress in South Carolina, including the discussions around the proposed Surface Water Withdrawal, Permitting, Use, and Reporting Act—legislation that would create a first-ever permit system to monitor and manage water withdrawn from the state’s rivers. And he points to water efficiency efforts in Seattle, New York City, and Austin that could serve as examples for South Carolina. “There’s ample opportunity for most any community to grow without using more water,” Jobsis contends.

Closer to home, he points to DeKalb County, Georgia’s, new Retrofit on Recon-nect ordinance that requires anyone buying a house to replace pre-1993 toilets, faucets, and showerheads with low-flow versions before water service can be established. DeKalb County (part of metropolitan Atlanta) predicts this measure will eventually save close to nine million gallons per day, which is nearly 10 percent of that utility’s current daily withdrawal. In fast-growing Cary, North Carolina (near Raleigh), a strategy aims to reduce water use by 20 percent over the next 12 years. One-hour home audits are provided to residential customers to help them examine their water usage, find leaks, and install low-flow fixtures. Because of this and other efficiency efforts, such as restrictions on lawn watering, Cary has been able to delay two previously planned water-plant expansions.

Such measures save a lot of money, Jobsis says. “Becoming more water efficient is the quickest and cheapest way to solve water issues and is far less costly than building new reservoirs and adding infrastructure.” Jobsis estimates a cost of under $1.40 to save 1,000 gallons of water by more efficient water use, while he says it can take $4,000 to achieve 1,000 gallons of water through construction of a new dam, not including future operations and maintenance costs.

Water Works

The Earth’s surface is mostly covered in water (albeit 97 percent saltwater), and some 60 percent of each person’s weight is water. Our bodies need water every day to live. So, drought or not, the subject of water is always important, and with ever more people and demands on the environment, the value of fresh, clean water becomes more precious.

Today, there are squabbles and shortages reported in Bolivia, Spain, Egypt, and more than 80 other countries around the world. Closer to home, along with our very own Carolinian water war, Atlanta is still in a severe drought, with Lake Lanier more than 10 feet below normal levels; and Georgia, which wants to siphon a quarter of the water from the lake for its own consumption, is still embroiled in a lengthy (and to date unsuccessful) legal dispute over water rights with Alabama and Florida, its downriver neighbors.

What we do now, how we manage our water on a statewide and regional scale, as well as in our own homes, is increasingly critical, experts say. So it must be a good thing that people are talking a bit more about water lately. For example, at a recent public event in Charleston, Rebekah Szivak with South Carolina Department of Natural Resources shared water use and conservation data, such as which industries use the most water. “We’re just now getting into water issues that others in the country have been dealing with for a while,” she says.

Attorney General McMaster predicts that water use and management is going to be an enduring issue. “Our state is such a beautiful place that everybody’s coming here and nobody’s leaving,” he says. And to be sure, 
every single one of them is thirsty.

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