Special Reports

Small-town drinking water woes can be fixed. Here’s how these SC communities did it

A regional water system allows small towns to pool money and customers, providing more revenue to maintain the system and keep the water clean, boosters say.

More from the series

Tainted Water

Disease-carrying bacteria, cancer-causing chemicals, toxic nitrates and brain-damaging metals have been found in small water systems across South Carolina.

With pipes breaking and germs threatening his town’s drinking water, Gifford Mayor James Risher realized his small Lowcountry community was in trouble.

Like many towns in Hampton County, Gifford had little money to make repairs to its water system and few people to keep it running. So Risher and other Hampton County leaders formed a regional system to provide water for the county and five small towns, a service they no longer could afford to offer separately.

“It’s something that needed to be done,’’ said Risher, who retired as Gifford mayor in 2012 after more than 30 years in office.

The formation of the Lowcountry Regional Water System seven years ago is an example of what needs to happen in many communities across South Carolina, officials say. But the water system’s formation is an exception, rather than the rule.

Despite pollution threats, aging pipes and high water bills, many small towns and water districts cling to local utility service.

In some towns, leaders don’t want to give up the water system because it provides a sizable chunk of the revenues that local government brings in each year. In other places, local officials fear they would lose control of a service they provide to the communities. Some also worry that forming a regional system would increase their customers’ rates.

A regional water system allows small towns to pool money and customers, providing more revenue to maintain the system and keep the water clean, boosters say. But since a 2005 consulting study recommended consolidating small water systems in nine areas of the state, only Hampton County has heeded that advice.

Some counties in central South Carolina, including Fairfield and Orangeburg, failed to form regional systems as recommended in the 2005 study by Force and Associates, according to a 2017 report by state regulators to Gov. Henry McMaster.

“No progress will occur unless there is a local champion to get behind the effort and stay with it until there is a conclusion,’’ the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control report said.

Prior to the 2005 Force report’s recommendations, some Lowcountry communities and the Santee Cooper power company formed a regional water system to serve some areas near lakes Marion and Moultrie.

‘Why ... take that away from us?’

One community that has resisted regionalizing is Denmark, a Bamberg County town where some customers have complained for years about the water’s quality. The town has had trouble with well contamination, discolored water and the use of a slime-killing chemical, injected into the water for 10 years without approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Residents say they are paying too much for water they can’t use. But the city council came out against joining a proposed regional water system.

Former Bamberg County Councilman Chris Wilson, who is suing Denmark over the quality of its drinking water, said the city and county would have benefited from a regional utility. In addition to helping improve water quality, a regional authority would have been a consistent source of water to help recruit industry, he said.

“It would have been a huge economic and service improvement,’’ Wilson said.

Denmark Mayor Gerald Wright said the regional water plan would have cost his city too much money without enough return.

“The revenue we get from our system pretty much takes care of the system,’’ Wright said. “What was proposed would have required additional revenue for the cost of putting that in.’’

Denmark makes about $1 million a year from water and sewer revenues, about half of the town’s revenues.

“It is not a tremendous profit,’’ Wright said of Denmark’s water revenues. “But we are self-sustaining. We can rely on operating our system with the revenue we get.’’

Jenkinsville Mayor Gregrey Ginyard, who manages the Jenkinsville Water Co., said he has heard discussions about regionalizing water service in Fairfield County. But, he said, his water system is doing well on its own.

He added the non-profit water system, owned by its customers, is the only water utility predominantly owned and operated by African Americans in Fairfield County. “Why would we take that away from us?’’ Ginyard asked.

The National Rural Water Association, which represents small government water systems, says local utilities sometimes unfairly have a bad reputation. Regional systems don’t always solve the problems, a top official said.

Regional water systems are “not a panacea,” said the association’s Mike Keegan, who tracks rural water issues in Congress. “There are cases where you’ve had top-down regionalization mandated .... and the water becomes more expensive, and it hasn’t helped the community.’’

An investigation by The State found widespread problems with South Carolina's drinking water systems. Here is what you need to know.

‘We don’t have the headaches’

Hampton County officials are sold on regional water.

Retired Gifford Mayor Risher said his town formed a water system in the 1970s because failing septic tanks in the marshy Lowcountry threatened private wells.

It was relatively easy to get government grants to launch the system. But as the local waterworks aged, money was not available for operation and maintenance, he said.

Broken and leaky pipes kept Risher busy working on repairs and looking for money. The town, he added, couldn’t raise utility rates much because its small customer base was filled with residents on fixed incomes.

Now, Risher said, “What is better about it is we don’t have the headaches.’’

Brian Burgess, the general manager of the Hampton water system, said making the change meant basic water rates increased for some people.

Still, the Hampton regional system has been able to pool resources and work more efficiently than each town could have done separately, he said

“This has helped remove the political pressures in changing rates,’’ Burgess said. “If you are a council member or mayor, and you have to go up on rates to run a water system, that can have a negative effect on getting re-elected.’’

Since the Hampton regional system was formed, it has invested $20 million into repairing and upgrading the formerly independent utilities. The regional system, for instance, spent $1 million installing a new water tank in Yemassee to replace the 1930s era tank that was in bad shape, he said. Much of the money came from government grants and loans, Burgess said.

That is important because DHEC had found problems with the water systems in Yemassee and other small Hampton County towns, ranging from bacteria pollution in the water to poor maintenance that threatened to let more contamination seep in. DHEC records show four of the towns that joined the regional system — Brunson, Gifford, Varnville and Yemassee — collectively had been hit with nine enforcement actions from the early 1990s through 2011.

“We are on the road ... to having all our original compliance issues taken care of,’’ Burgess said.

Contaminants can pose health concerns and plumbing nightmares. Here are eight physical signs your drinking water may be at risk.

Findings: Regional water systems needed?

In 2005, state consultants recommended small water systems in nine areas of South Carolina consolidate, forming regional water authorities.

A 2017 report to Gov. Henry McMaster said regional water systems could help provide better water service in towns with recurring water-quality and service problems.

Small towns are reluctant to join regional water systems because that means they would lose control and water revenues, which often account for a substantial part of their income.

Only in Hampton County have small towns consolidated their water systems, according to a local water authority official.

Hampton’s Lowcountry Regional Water System has invested $20 million into repairing and upgrading the small water and sewer systems that it was given control of. The spending was, in part, to address nine drinking-water violations made against four Hampton towns before they joined the regional system.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

Sammy Fretwell has written about the environment for more than 20 years. Among the matters he covers are climate change, wildlife issues, nuclear policy, pollution, land protection, coastal development, energy and state environmental policy. Fretwell, who grew up in Anderson County, is a University of South Carolina graduate. Reach him at 803 771 8537.