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. Even so, 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 for saltwater intrusion due to natural or man-made 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 of 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 183 million gallons of groundwater per year from the Charleston/Middendorf Aquifer. Less than a year later, the tech giant reapplied, seeking to triple that amount to a staggering 549 million gallons of groundwater 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. In addition to the request for more groundwater, the data center already uses an undisclosed amount of potable water from Berkeley County Water & Sanitation. Google committed to going back to the drawing board to explore alternative sources and withdrew its permit in 2017.
Google’s data centers are unique in design, using water in HVAC systems to cool its servers that produce a significant amount of heat from electricity. However, groundwater is not the only water source Google uses. Many of the company’s other data centers have made significant efforts to draw from less impactful sources including easier-to-monitor surface water, the sea, and even recycled water.
In February 2019, on the heels of announcing its expansion of the Berkeley County Data Center, Google reapplied for the exact same permit seeking to withdraw 549 million gallons of groundwater. Once again the Conservation League and other entities provided comments with concerns about the proposed withdrawal with regard to the potential impacts on the aquifer, the lack of transparency in the application, and the fact that a pipe to provide additional potable water from Berkeley County was under construction, which should soon meet the company’s water needs.
At the September 30 meeting of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments’ Technical Advisory Committee, the committee of stakeholders, including the Conservation League, recommended that DHEC deny Google’s permit modification in a nearly unanimous vote. However, on October 9, DHEC issued the final permit to Google.
Trident Area Groundwater Management Plan
As a response to the outcry of opposition to Google’s permit, DHEC decided to craft a regional groundwater management plan in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties. The agency held two stakeholder meetings and one public hearing on the plan, but it has mostly been an agency-led and -crafted document. The DHEC board reviewed the plan and decided to pass it, as is, in May 2017. At this time, we do not fully support the plan in its current state given some of its vague and non-binding language. We believe the plan has the potential to be a useful tool to protect our groundwater resources in the future, but as of now, does not represent the full scope of data or reflect full stakeholder feedback. Subsequently, DHEC passed groundwater management plans in all of the other capacity use regions.