South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal will meet Wednesday to discuss a variety of cross-state water issues at a meeting that is being hailed as the first water summit between the two states.
The docket will include discussion about dredging the Savannah River for the expansion of the Savannah Port and the signing of a joint agreement between the states to begin a long-delayed comprehensive study of how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the basin.
Col. Thomas J. Tickner, the new head of the Corps’ Savannah District, will sign an agreement between the two states and The Nature Conservancy to begin a $1 million study that could bring more adaptive, real-time management of the basin’s water, especially during times of drought.
South Carolina Rep. Don Bowen of Anderson said he hopes the two states can work together to solve longstanding issues of how the states use water in the basin and keep the states from having to resort to court action.
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The basin’s water is used by industrial sites, Plant Vogtle nuclear reactors, utility companies and municipalities on either side of the Savannah River for drinking water.
It flows through three reservoirs — Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond — and its freshwater keeps the ocean saltwater from intruding upstream into the Savannah River where it would choke out fish and state endangered species, according to the Corps.
At issue is how much of the resource each state taps for its own uses. Saltwater has already intruded into an underground aquifer that provides water for Hilton Head Island and rendered wells useless.
Bowen said most of the industries that use the water and discharge effluents into it are on the Georgia side of the river, but “they’re willing to work with us on these issues because they realize long-term we all have to do something to clean up the basin and put a better management system in place.”
Bowen and about 30 legislators from counties that border the basin formed the Savannah River Basin Water Caucus, which first met in Columbia in the spring.
This summit will be hosted by Deal and Georgia Rep. Alan Powell at the Big Oaks Recreation Area in Hartwell, Ga.
Corps management of the basin has frustrated residents and business owners upstream, especially in the vicinity of Lake Hartwell, because the Corps’ current policies dictate how much water it must send downstream, even during periods of drought.
A review of the Corps’ drought-management plan is required after every drought of record, and a review hasn’t been done since the 2009-10 drought, said Billy Birdwell, Corps spokesman.
This comprehensive study will take 18 months and includes public and stakeholder input through the process, Birdwell said.
The Corps funds half the study and requires each state to split the remaining half, according to the Corps. Federal funding was secured in 2010. Since then, budget constraints prevented South Carolina from funding its portion of the study until this year.
The Nature Conservancy has been added as a full partner on the study because it agreed to add in-kind labor, Birdwell said.
“They bring in resources that the states were not able to come up with,” Birdwell said. “They have expertise to do this type of research.”
Birdwell said the Corps isn’t involved with the states’ water caucus and is limited in its scope of participation to what’s required by the basin study to help the Corps manage its reservoirs.
Bowen said this is the first time this many legislators from the two states have worked together on a shared issue.
“We’ve got this billed as a historic event,” he said.