The first, and possibly the most important, issue discussed by city leaders during last week’s annual planning workshop was a notice from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division that Liberty and Bryan counties have to reduce the amount of water pumped from the Floridan aquifer by 1 million gallons a day.
Hinesville City Manager Billy Edwards said Liberty and Bryan counties are in what the EPD defined as the yellow zone, but Chatham and parts of Effingham counties are in the red zone. Red-zone areas have to reduce their withdrawals from the Floridan aquifer by 15 million gallons a day, he said. He said yellow and red zones have until the end of the year to develop a plan to deal with the new restriction, or the EPD will take action. A solution must be in place by 2025, he added.
He said the reason for the pumping restrictions is the risk of saltwater intrusion to the aquifer. During the workshop, Edwards explained the aquifer as something like an underground river that’s deeper in some places than others. The closer the aquifer is to the surface, the greater the risk of salinization, he said. Options for reducing water withdrawals include conservation, an alternate water source or building a desalination plant.
City leaders quickly agreed that conservation measures would not be enough to meet the requirement. Mayor Jim Thomas said that Hinesville does a good job conserving water, but not all the cities within the yellow zone are following Hinesville’s example.
“If you look at the red zone, where they have to reduce their withdrawal by 15 million gallons a day, it would take a 25 percent reduction in their withdrawal to meet the 15 million gallons a day target,” Edwards said. “Achieving a 25 percent reduction through conservation is not thought to be achievable.”
City leaders decided a desalination plant would be too costly, leaving the option of finding an alternate water source as the most cost-efficient solution.
Edwards suggested an alternate water source was Long County, which is a green zone and has no pumping restrictions. Thomas agreed and said he already has talked with Long County leaders about drilling a well there. He said they’re not “averse” to doing that, noting that having a water-system source at that end of Long County would benefit Long County residents, who have no county water system.
“It would be fairly easy to do that,” Edwards said. “The city of Hinesville abuts with Long County in some places. All we would have to do is acquire some land and put a well down. (It would be) a relatively short transition to connect to our system.”
Edwards added it wouldn’t be right to hold yellow-zone taxpayers in Liberty County responsible for the full cost of drilling a well in Long County. He said with a new well in place, they could reduce production from one or all four of Liberty’s wells by 1 million gallons a day, which would solve the problem for everyone in the yellow zone.
“All the players in the yellow zone need to contribute to what the solution is,” he said, noting that a new well could cost $800,000 to $1 million. “All the stakeholders ought to contribute to the financial cost associated with the solution.”
Mayor Pro Tem Charles Frasier asked about Riceboro’s cooperation with McIntosh County to drill a well near their county line. He wondered whether doing that would help meet EPD reduction requirements. Edwards said Riceboro already is exceeding its permit capacity.
“The fact that Riceboro’s demand is greater than their permit (capacity) is a good indicator that their ability to help us reduce the total withdrawal is much more difficult,” he said. “They need additional capacity. They’re not in a situation where they can afford to reduce their withdrawal.”
During the planning workshop, Thomas reminded the other city leaders that the aquifer is not a coastal issue but a Georgia issue and suggested all communities work together on a solution. The leaders decided to continue efforts to develop a plan by the end of the year.