If South Carolina wants to ensure that water from the Catawba River is being used sensibly and responsibly, it has to be able to monitor where the water is going. The Fair Share Water Bill introduced in the state Legislature by Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, would enable the state to do that.
Essentially, the bill would require that major water consumers in the state get a permit to take water from the state's rivers and streams. This would allow the state to monitor withdrawals and maintain a reliable supply of water for all users.
Water is a finite resource. That point has been driven home by the ongoing drought, which has forced cities throughout the Upstate to limit usage by residential and commercial customers alike.
The legal battle with North Carolina regarding the proposal to divert water from the Catawba out of its natural basin and pump it to the N.C. cities of Concord and Kannapolis also underscores the need to seek new ways to regulate water withdrawals. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider the case, and its outcome is certain to have serious ramifications regarding water use in the region.
S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, who brought the lawsuit for the state, has praised Hayes' bill as crucial to controlling water withdrawals by large users such as electric plants and other industries.
Under current rules, South Carolina has almost no authority over how public water sources are used. Users now are free to withdraw hundreds of thousands of gallons of water without any oversight from the state as the water remains within the original basin.
Hayes' bill would require a permit for all withdrawals of 3 million gallons or more a month. Existing users would be grandfathered in, receiving a permit at current withdrawal levels, while prospective businesses would receive permits guaranteeing a reliable water supply.
Hayes' bill also addresses the crucial issue of minimum flows, the stumbling point for past permitting legislation. The debate centers on how much water must be left in rivers and streams.
A number of commercial users have argued for establishing a single minimum flow throughout the year. For example, the flow in January would be the same as June's. Hayes' bill, however, calls for hewing to the natural flow patterns of the river.
In South Carolina, rivers typically have heavier flows in the winter and spring, and lower flows in the summer and fall. The flow patterns have a direct effect on the spawning habits of fish, signaling them when to migrate and spawn.
Hayes' bill, which has the strong support of environmental groups, would require users to observe the natural rhythms of the river and not interfere with the patterns necessary to sustain fish and wildlife.
The Catawba River is the lifeline of much of the state. It not only provides water for commercial uses but also for agricultural, forestry and recreational uses. Most significantly, it provides drinking water for 1.3 million people.
Delaying this effort to regulate water usage would be foolhardy. The longer the Legislature waits, the more users will establish water withdrawal standards that would have to be grandfathered in later.
South Carolina must act to ensure that users both upstream and downstream get their "fair share" of water along the entire length of the river. If all the state's water needs are to be met, the state must protect this invaluable resource and ensure it is used wisely.
Hayes' bill is a good starting point for protecting the state's water supply.