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Growing Thirst
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In 1884 near Brunswick, Ga., the first well was tapped into the Floridan Aquifer.

Little more than a century later, the Floridan Aquifer — the vast underground water source for 24 Georgia counties, two counties in the South Carolina Lowcountry and two in northern Florida — is under serious threat.

There’s no danger that the aquifer will run out of water, but decreased pressure caused by withdrawals near the coast means saltwater has begun seeping in at some points. If that happens, the Floridan Aquifer will be effectively unusable for humans.

All this is happening just as a massive growth boom is hitting the Georgia coast, driven both by the area’s unique qualities and an equally unique market force.

Asian competition has forced down the price of paper products, and much of Georgia’s land once tied up in timber is being developed into subdivisions instead.

“The paper companies can make more money developing their land than growing pine trees on it,” says Patricia McIntosh of the Savannah office of the Georgia Conservancy.

Pooler and the city of Savannah are well underway in developing former International Paper timberland in west Chatham. Savannah itself has annexed a large chunk of previously unincorporated southside. In the last decade, at least 8,500 new housing units have been built within a ten-mile radius of I-95 and the Savannah airport.

In all, coastal population from Chatham to Camden counties is expected to double to at least one million people in the next 25 years.

That may not sound like much compared to Atlanta, but for an ecosystem as fragile and dependent on the whims of wind and water as coastal Georgia’s, that population boom represents an enormous potential burden on natural resources — chief among them the great Floridan Aquifer.

Also at risk is the coast’s annual revenue from fishing, crabbing, shrimping and outdoor recreation — a revenue source now in decline as key marsh habitat is cleared to make way for residential development.

“At least 40,000 coastal jobs are derived from our natural resources, and related businesses generate at least $1 billion a year here,” says David Kyler, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast in St. Simons Island, Ga.

“The growth doesn’t just cause environmental damage,” McIntosh adds. “There’s real damage to culture as well. A lot of old fishing communities, old African-American villages, are going away forever.”

But danger or no, the growth is coming. The question is: Is there a plan in place to sustain that growth without destroying the very water source that is fueling it?

Not everyone was blindsided by the boom. A decade ago, two entities that saw it coming were the city of Savannah and Chatham County, who took it on themselves to form a comprehensive Water Supply Management Plan in 1995.

As government plans go, this one was fairly visionary, combining judicious conservation with a realistic assessment of future growth.

“It was a groundbreaking moment, not only for us, but even for Georgia,” says Bob Scanlon, environmental affairs officer for the City of Savannah. “It was the first regional water plan in the entire state.”

A team effort of the city, county, Metropolitan Planning Commission and major industrial water users, the Water Supply plan was held up by the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) as a template for other areas to follow.

“We were the model for the other 23 counties in the region. The city has been very diligent and proactive in making sure its system is as efficient as possible,” says Deatre Denion, environmental planner for the city.

While most of Savannah’s customers get Floridan Aquifer groundwater from their faucets, the city supplements its supply by pumping surfacewater from Abercorn Creek for treatment at its Industrial & Domestic (I&D) facility on the westside.

Pooler and Port Wentworth both contract with Savannah for this surfacewater. Thunderbolt is able to use it on an emergency basis as needed.

“Godley Station currently gets a groundwater/surfacewater blend,” Denion says of one large new development in west Chatham.

While Chatham County groundwater use was frozen in 1992, EPD threw Savannah a curveball in 1997. The so-called “Interim Strategy” for managing the Floridan Aquifer mandated that not only would no new groundwater permits be granted in the 24 county region, but Savannah would have to actually cut groundwater use by ten million gallons per day.

Still, Denion says, the city is “proud of how we’ve been able to keep water usage level, even though our customer base has increased so much.”

City records indicate that over the last 16 years, water use has stayed about the same even though the customer base has increased by 21 percent.

“We have a yearly unaccounted-use audit to see where we can cut down on water usage,” Denion says. “We have an unbelievable leak detection program — we’ve cut the number of leaks from over 3800 to about 900. That’s not bad for a city as old as this one.”

Because no new permits are being granted in the 24 Georgia counties dependent on the Floridan Aquifer, Savannah’s conservation measures mean it can sell its unused groundwater and surfacewater to the faster-growing communities around it.

For example, Effingham County currently buys all of its surfacewater from Savannah.

(This is ironic, considering that the I&D plant’s intake point on Abercorn Creek is actually in Effingham County. Denion says that if the Georgia Ports Authority gets approval to dredge the Savannah River channel deeper, the intake point will have to be moved even further upstream into Effingham.)

“Effingham County’s been aggressive in establishing a water system, and the city of Savannah is their water source,” says Bob Scanlon. “They’re now putting water systems in and a wastewater plant to handle the growth they’re projecting.”

Bryan County has contracted for Savannah to operate a groundwater well to quench the thirst of its new Genesis Point subdivision. The well will be in Bryan County, but licensed under Savannah’s permit.

Rincon, in Effingham, is on the losing end of a protracted court battle with EPD. Rincon officials say they shouldn’t be forced to buy surfacewater from Savannah and instead should be allowed to pump groundwater. EPD, citing the threat to the aquifer, disagrees.

“Some municipalities might find it hard to accept what they see as a loss of some autonomy, but they’re also able to tie into the system without a lot of capital expenditure,” argues Scanlon.

Savannah’s status as 800-pound regional gorilla may not have made many friends in outlying municipalities forced to do business with it if they want to build more subdivisions. But observers say that’s the city’s reward for planning ahead and playing by the rules.

“When Savannah was asked to reduce groundwater consumption, by God they did it,” says McIntosh.

“And made a sizeable investment to do so,” adds Will Berson, her colleague at the Georgia Conservancy.

“I understand the concept of home rule,” says Berson, “but home rule can do a lot of damage to a commonly held asset we all depend on.”

What Denion calls “a significant upgrade” of Savannah’s I&D plant in 2000 at a cost of $17.5 million increased its pumping capacity from 52 million gallons per day (mgd) to at least 62 mgd.

This is important, because the West Chatham boom is expected to be serviced by surfacewater, not groundwater from the aquifer.

“Annexed areas may start out on groundwater initially, but they’ll eventually be switched over to surfacewater,” says Denion. “That’s why we spent that money on infrastructure.”

Scanlon says Savannah was encouraged early on to be a water wholesaler for the region.

“We were encouraged by EPD when we were putting the plan together for the 2000 upgrade to consider ourselves a regional supplier,” Scanlon says. “Our surfacewater treatment plant has the capacity now to handle more than the projected growth for this area.”

In addition, Scanlon says “we’re also doing a lot across the river. We share a lot of information with the Beaufort/Jasper Water Authority and work very closely with them. We’re looking at a regional issue here, and solving it will take a regional solution. And from Savannah’s perspective, that solution is a bi-state solution.”

Critics point out that Savannah’s status as the region’s main water wholesaler means it’s not technically conserving water, just sending it somewhere else.

But in the zero-sum environment that’s existed since the state moratorium on new permits, every gallon of water bought from Savannah means less added stress to the Floridan Aquifer.

And coastal growth in Georgia is not a question of if, but when.

Camden County, furthest away, grew at a 200 percent clip since 1980. Closer to home, Bryan and Effingham counties doubled in population from 1990 to 2000, with no end in sight.

One under-the-radar aspect of this growth has water planners worried. The EPD is only mandated to concern itself with pumping from the aquifer at greater than 100,000 gallons per day. Anything less than that is essentially unregulated.

In practical terms, this means that “as long as you keep it under 100,000 gallons a day and a certain number of hookups, the state doesn’t care,” says Denion.

Some new subdivisions in Bryan County have already begun employing this option. While developers say it isn’t their first choice, they say they have to get the water from somewhere. Conservationists say that shouldn’t happen at the expense of a publicly held resource like water.

Unlike Western states — which use “appropriative rights” guaranteeing water rights first to upstream users, that can in turn be traded on the open market — Georgia and most eastern states rely on “riparian rights,” where water is largely considered a public resource, with landowners having the right to reasonable use of water on or adjacent to their land.

Despite coordinated efforts by the agribusiness lobby in the last three sessions of the state legislature, all attempts to introduce Western-style water markets to Georgia have so far failed.

While planners are rightly concerned about the increase in residential growth, the fact remains that industry still uses the vast majority of water in the region.

“The state has focused almost exclusively on domestic and municipal water systems in their conservation efforts — yet in our region three-quarters of water, or more, is used by industry,” says Kyler.

Denion echoes that, saying “people are always telling us, ‘You need to do something about industrial use.’ But the city has no jurisdiction over industry whatsoever. The state grants water permits, not us.”

Also contrary to popular opinion, the state does not intervene in favor of local governments on water issues.

“There’s a real disconnect between state and local governments,” says Kyler. “EPD treats local government no differently than any other person on the street with regards to water use. It’s on a first-come, first-serve basis.”

Kyler says that since industry uses three to four times as much water in coastal Georgia as all other users, a ten percent savings in industrial water use would be equivalent to a 30-40 percent reduction among other users.

“Another way of saying this is that a modest industrial water use reduction would free up enough water supply to support residential and commercial growth for several decades, with no additional supplies needed,” says Kyler, cautioning that environmental impacts still need to be examined closely.

But as industry continues to decline while residential growth continues to rise, won’t the two trendlines eventually cross?

“What will bring that on is industry leaving altogether,” Kyler says. “The trendlines are either going to cross because of population growth, or the drastic departure of industry.”

While Kyler does not at all discount the impact of a booming population, he says the state is past due in examining industrial use.

“There’s been no push by the state on industrial users anywhere near the push they’ve put on municipal conservation,” he says.

Kyler says that as an environmentalist he’s ordinarily loathe to propose subsidies for industry, “but if you look at all the water supply alternatives from an environmental and cost standpoint, it may turn out that wisest use of public investment is to help industry convert to more efficient water using equipment.”

While Scanlon stresses that any such talk is purely hypothetical at this point, he does say that eventually “something creative is going to have to be done” to address industrial water use.

“We have to remember that the law gives industries the right to use water. And that right does provide jobs for the area. If they didn’t have that right, there are jobs we might not have. So there’s a community benefit in addressing this.”

Scanlon says such creativity might especially be needed if the state ever forces local industries off groundwater, which is much cheaper than surfacewater.

“If in fact industries were to be run off surfacewater, it may be to everybody’s advantage for that to be subsidized,” Scanlon theorizes.

“If they had to give up groundwater, that may be enough of a cost impact that they will no longer be competitive. And that would cost the area jobs.”

The next phase of the water debate will intensify soon. The EPD is currently implementing, by legislative mandate, an ambitious program called the Coastal Georgia Sound Science Initiative, with final results due sometime late this year or early in 2006.

Funded both by legislative appropriations and paper mill contributions, the Initiative — “a program of scientific and feasibility studies to support development of Georgia Environmental Protection Division's final strategy to protect the Upper Floridan aquifer from saltwater contamination,” according to its website — utilizes research methods like offshore drilling, test wells and digital waterflow modelling.

While the Initiative has issued no final conclusions yet, there is some buzz that early studies indicating that some wells into the Floridan Aquifer may salt out in 50 years — a much shorter timespan than the 200-plus range previously thought.

“If that happens, no one’s going to use that water for anything,” says Denion. “The question now is if the Sound Science Initiative says a 10 mgd reduction for Savannah isn’t good enough. So we’re looking at all of our options.”

Kyler agrees that proactivity is crucial.

“Back in '97 when the Interim Strategy was proposed — which Chatham County was instrumental in — it really brought forth the importance of water resource planning at the county level,” he says.

Kyler says local governments must be forceful in rejecting what he calls “intensive uses” like power plants, that create relatively few jobs but use massive amounts of water.

“From what I can tell, these power plants are mostly exporting electricity anyway,” he says. “So to a certain extent, Georgia is almost being used like a Third World country, with resource-intensive uses that benefit other places.”

But often, he says, prior zoning decisions tie the hands of elected officials.

For example, in fast-growing Glynn County where his organization is based, Kyler says the local county commission “found itself in the awkward position of having to approve a power plant they didn't want, because the zoning allowed for it.”

Kyler says local governments should take a new look at what he calls the “obsolete” method of prezoning land for industrial use in order to attract new employers.

“To maintain resources, you have to fend off intensive uses. Until local government gets savvy they won't really be in control of their own destiny,” he says.

“It will require some tough political decisions, but so be it. That's part of the job description.”