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EPD to curb water withdrawals
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The Georgia Environmental Protection Division will be cutting back on the amount of water that can be withdrawn by coastal Georgia, including all of Bryan County, from the upper Floridan aquifer beginning Jan. 1.

The EPD is imposing the cutbacks because of saltwater intrusion to the upper Floridan aquifer as more water is extracted.

Richmond Hill City Manager Mike Melton, who met with the EPD on Sept. 11, said the new ruling will mean, "351,000 gallons per day they’re going to take away from us."

Melton also said there is no need to panic, because the cuts won’t limit the amount of water the city is using now. In addition, negotiations are underway in an attempt for Richmond Hill to pump water from the lower Floridan aquifer, which the city tapped into in 2006.

But Melton said these restrictions, if not counteracted, pose a threat for future water use plans. As outlined in the city’s recently drafted land use plan, future development plans show these water restrictions have the potential to halt development anywhere from five to 10 years from now.

Bryan County Administrator Phil Jones also met recently with EPD officials to discuss these upcoming restrictions. Although Jones said this also will not immediately impact the rest of the county, he too said it will harm future development if not addressed.

Bill Frechette with the EPD said the cutbacks are part of an ongoing effort to avoid potential saltwater intrusion and pointed to a saltwater intrusion act June, 2006.

He said the latest measure is the implementation of that act. He also said, if this issue was not addressed and contained, the Floridan aquifer could be contaminated with salt. If that were to occur, all the coastal areas that depend on it for water would no longer be able to withdraw a usable source from it.

"We are willing to work with all the permit holders (such as Richmond Hill and Bryan County) on a variety of things," Frechette said. "We’ve had discussions with each of the permit holders and negotiations have been ongoing. There is some consideration based on future discoveries, so this is not in concrete. We are expecting a lot of new information to come from these discussions and we are here to help everyone get through this."

Jones said the EPD has advised the county to look at alternative sources of water. He said the county is currently considering either reverse osmosis/treatment of river water or tapping into the lower aquifer.

Jones said Chatham has turned to treating water from the Savannah River. "We have the Ogeechee which sometimes has a good flow rate, but mostly not. Therefore, it is a more viable option to look at the lower Floridan."

Jones said he believes the root of these new restrictions is stemming from negotiations, and potential litigation, between Georgia and South Carolina.

He said it centers on saltwater intrusion into the upper Floridan from Hilton Head. "All of this hinges on that conflict," Jones said. "South Carolina wants Georgia to show significant reduction from the upper Floridan."

It could be worse - Chatham County was cut back more drastically than Bryan.

This is because Chatham is in the ‘red zone,’ which means it is has a direct impact on saltwater intrusion.

Bryan, as well as Liberty and parts of Effingham, is in the ‘yellow zone,’ which means it is in the ‘cone of depression’ and may have what the EPD is calling a residual effect on saltwater intrusion due its proximity to Savannah.

This is the second hit Richmond Hill has recently taken from the EPD.

A number of water conservation rules were recently handed down which will result in higher water bills for all commercial customers and a small number of residential customers starting Jan. 1.

One plan of action for the city of Richmond Hill, which is already in motion, is contending to the EPD that they have no impact on the cone of depression.

Melton said city officials have proven that Richmond Hill and Bryan County are not affecting saltwater intrusion but, rather, are being penalized because of their close proximity to an area that does – Savannah.

"We spent a lot of money to prove that the city doesn’t have any pressure on this system," Melton said. "We’ve been working with a geologist for years, and he is in the process of publishing a paper on this issue."

That paper, drafted by Harold Gill - the same geologist that helped Richmond Hill tap the lower aquifer, is currently under a peer review by the South Carolina EPD.

Meanwhile, Melton said he thinks the EPD will allow the city to supplement lower Floridan water withdrawal to replace the amount they are taking away with these new restrictions. He also said negotiations are leaning toward giving up more upper Floridan water in exchange for water from the lower Floridan.

"That may be what we need to do to get that water back," Melton said. "Hopefully our overall numbers won’t change at all."

Melton said this would amend the dilemma, but may lead to building an additional well to tap into the lower Floridan.

There currently is one such well at the back of Boles Park on Harris Trail Road. There are three upper wells in the city.

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