Less than a year after the 1,000-year flood of 2015, the entire state of South Carolina was mired in drought.
Then Hurricane Matthew struck in October 2016, another 1,000-year rainfall event. Less than a year after that, parts of South Carolina again face drought.
“It seems like we are always one month away from a drought,” said state climatologist Hope Mizzell, speaking at the South Carolina Water Resources Summit at Clemson University last week. “In less than 12 months, the state was impacted by five wet tropical storms, including a hurricane, and here we are still talking about drought.”
Mizzell was one of nearly 100 people attending the “Back to the Future of Drought” summit Friday at the Madren Conference Center. The half-day summit brought together stakeholders from throughout the state to discuss water use, availability and management.
It will be the first in an annual series that builds on the success of the biennial South Carolina Water Resources Conference organized by Clemson University. The conference brings experts together to communicate new research methods and scientific knowledge; educate scientists, engineers and water professionals; and disseminate useful information to policymakers, water managers, industry stakeholders, citizen groups and the public. Conference organizers expect to host two “Summit Series” events annually.
Last year marked the eighth driest summer in 122 years, Mizzell said, predicting another hot summer for 2017. Looking through 100 years of rainfall data, South Carolina continues to experience drier summers and wetter fall seasons, she said. Groundwater has been in steady decline since the 1990s despite its largest recharge in 50 years from the 2015 flood, she said.
“Water is key to economic prosperity,” said state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, speaking during a panel discussion at the summit.
Consistent communication among state agencies, stakeholder groups, utilities and others — an objective of the new Summit Series — is critical to water resource management, said Catherine Heigel, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“We have lived through two 1,000-year events in successive years. We have to invest in building resiliency in our ability to handle these abnormal weather events that are coming at us with more frequency,” she said. “Whether it is dealing with flood or drought, this is our new normal.”
DHEC is primarily concerned with drinking water availability and overall water quality during low-flow conditions, Heigel said.
“Watching indicators of water availability is key,” she said.
Clemson University is working to create a program that would utilize the latest technologies in sensing and monitoring to continuously assess South Carolina’s capacity to provide water for sustainable agricultural, recreational, industrial, municipal and residential use, said Jeffery Allen, director of the university’s South Carolina Water Resources Center and the S.C. Water Resources Conference. The program would support assessment procedures and management guidelines outlined in the South Carolina Water Plan and has the support of DHEC and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
That type of real-time data is essential to managing water use fairly and effectively, said Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley.
He warned that Atlanta could soon look to tap South Carolina’s water resources to meet the demands of its growing population.
“Water is going to be the new gold and we are quickly approaching that,” Campbell said.
DHEC and DNR, with assistance from Clemson University, are in the midst of a study to assess the amount of surface water available in the state’s eight river basins. That information is nearly complete, said Ken Rentiers, deputy director for land, water and conservation at the DNR.
An assessment of groundwater availability will follow, along with forecasts of future water demand, to create regional water resource plans and a statewide water management plan, Rentiers said. The data collected during assessments will help identify areas that would be stressed in periods of drought and plan accordingly.
It also could shape the state’s water-resources policy and provide an accurate method to evaluate trends in water availability and use, he said. Proper management also could help the state avoid disputes with its neighbors, Rentiers said.
“We’ve assembled a huge amount of hydrological data assessments that will be useful for years to come,” Rentiers said. “Drought is an ongoing situation that we must be ready to mitigate. This area that we’re sitting in is still in severe drought status.”