COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Officials say South Carolina's efforts to form water management agreements with North Carolina and Georgia could be hurt because of a gap in the state's water laws.
South Carolina does not have regulatory control over surface water withdrawals. Unless mandatory drought restrictions are in force, industries, cities or farmers can take as much water as they want out of South Carolina's rivers and streams without regard to the needs of other users.
They merely must store or use the water within the same river basin and report withdrawals of 3 million gallons or more to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control after the fact, said DHEC Bureau of Water Assistant Chief Sally Knowles.
The state's lack of regulatory control may lead some out-of-state leaders to question South Carolina's ability to honor a water agreement, said Jim Kundell, science adviser to the Georgia General Assembly.
South Carolina shares the Catawba River and the Yadkin-Pee Dee River with North Carolina and the Savannah River with Georgia.
A committee appointed by Gov. Mark Sanford to study the state's water laws likely will recommend South Carolina pursue compacts with its neighboring states to ensure fair access to rivers as demand increases.
Other states have stricter water regulations. Georgia has required permits for all withdrawals of 100,000 gallons or more for three decades, said Kundell, director of the Environmental Policy Program at the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
North Carolina also has given itself the legal power to regulate withdrawals, said David Baize, director of DHEC's Water Monitoring, Assessment and Protection Division.
Kentucky, Alabama and numerous other states have similar regulations in place.
"Right now in South Carolina, we don't have any rules," said Dean Moss, director of the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority.
South Carolina controls its ground water supply more carefully, requiring permits and setting withdrawal limits to protect aquifers. DHEC also requires permits and sets caps for anyone transferring water from one river basin to another. There are four river basins in the state, so this affects a small number of users. But actual withdrawals are unlimited by state law.
DHEC has drafted legislation that would require 20-year permits for all sizable water withdrawals. Kundell said that by addressing the issue, South Carolina will improve prospects for bi-state agreements.
"To a very large extent, the decisions we make over the next decade on water are going to determine the quality of life in the Southeast for our children and our grandchildren," he said.