Georgia Voices: Water policy, Let’s get it right
by The Savannah Morning News
May 23, 2013 11:46 PM | 1629 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division may have fouled up the Ogeechee River. But it’s encouraging to see the agency take a tougher line on protecting the region’s aquifer.

This week, the EPD placed a moratorium on new groundwater pumping from the Floridan Aquifer. That’s the underground layer of limestone and dolomite that stretches under southeastern Georgia, southern South Carolina and all of Florida and is the main source of fresh water for this region.

State officials said they were motivated by concerns about saltwater intrusion into the groundwater in the area around Hilton Head Island. That’s undoubtedly true.

South Carolina had threatened to take legal action against Georgia if it didn’t stop over-pumping from the aquifer, as this accelerates the movement of sea water into this spongy stratum from the Atlantic. In fact, one estimate projects that all of Hilton Head’s wells could be contaminated by 2025 without additional restrictions.

The last thing this area needs is a water war. No one will win.

Georgia doesn’t want to defend itself in court on this issue either. The aquifer is a shared public resource. It must be protected for the mutual benefit of all the states that rely on it.

Monday’s order will prohibit new groundwater withdrawals in the coastal Georgia counties of Chatham, Bryan, Liberty and part of Effingham, south of Ga. Highway 119. It applies to community public water systems and municipal and industrial systems, banning them from the entire aquifer, not just the Upper Floridan.

The EPD already capped withdrawals from the Upper Floridan, where the quality of the water is good. In fact, that’s where most Savannah residents get their drinking water. The issue has been withdrawals from the Lower Floridan, where the water is slightly salty. Could water be removed from it without affecting the other layer and the intrusion of saltwater.

Only a decade ago, top EPD officials didn’t believe the Upper and Lower layers were connected. They were willing to consider a permit sought by the city of Richmond Hill to tap into the Lower Floridan to meet a growing demand for water. But local environmentalists, backed by scientific experts, wisely convinced the EPD to reverse course.

Today, the EPD points to groundwater studies that showed the two sections are interconnected. This research prompted the state’s decision to declare the entire aquifer off-limits.

“Georgia has always been serious about this issue,” said Jeff Larson, assistant branch chief for the state EPD. “Our friends in South Carolina are aware of the coastal permitting plan from 2006 that established the restrictions already in this area.”

Indeed they are. That’s why the moratorium is sound public policy. And so is coming up with a regional water plan that benefits Georgia and South Carolina. The communities that have access to water will prosper. Those that don’t will whither on the vine.

Restricting aquifer withdrawals will place more demand on the next most-available source: Surface water. There’s only so much of it to go around. The time to figure out how to best use it is now, not after the wells go dry or the water gets too salty.
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