Governors and lawmakers from South Carolina and Georgia have promised a new cooperation on water management in the Savannah River Basin.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and his South Carolina counterpart, Nikki Haley, headlined a meeting of elected officials, conservationists and Army Corps of Engineers representatives on Wednesday at Lake Hartwell, a man-made reservoir near the beginning of the Savannah River that divides the two states.
Officials signed an agreement to update drought management plans for the basin, the latest phase of a long-term study of Savannah River management financed by the federal government and both states.
Col. Thomas Tickner, commander of the Corps’ Savannah District that manages Lake Hartwell and other reservoirs, said the next phase will reassess “the minimum environmentally acceptable release” from reservoirs amid drought conditions.
The larger purpose Wednesday was mostly symbolic, as the governors and legislators said they hope the new spirit prevents future water litigation.
“That’s the worst place to settle our differences,” Deal said, adding that compacts and communication are the way “to take advantage of what has been granted to us by God and by nature.”
Haley said “competition will always be there” in economic development. But, she added, “We are better together every day of the week than we are separately.”
The fledgling Savannah River Basin Caucus, formed by members of the general assemblies from both states, sponsored the event. The group was formed during drought conditions that exacerbated differences among varying interest groups along the river.
Lake communities such as Hartwell suffer economically when low water levels drive down tourism spending. But communities down river clamor for reservoir transfers to supply drinking water.
Conservationists, meanwhile, note that water levels in the river must be maintained for health marine habitats and to ensure safe dissolution of deposits from industrial sites in the basin.
Those concerns were not immediately visible Wednesday with the reservoir replenished by this year’s generous rainfall. But participants agreed that it’s imperative to plan now.
“I’m excited we’re all here,” said conservationist Tonya Bonitatibus. “But we really don’t have a choice. ... We have to realize that from Elberton (Ga.) to Hilton Head (S.C.), we’re all in this together.”
Clemson University professors, meanwhile, told the assembly that they’ve successfully launched new technology to gather data on the river in real time using buoys carrying computers.
Gene Eidson of Clemson said the project, Intelligent River Systems, could make the Savannah “the most studied river in the world” once it’s fully implemented. The project recently won a grant from the National Science Foundation, he said.
No one explicitly mentioned the two states port expansion competition. Both Charleston and Savannah are among the U.S. ports angling for new federal investments, and both cities welcomed Vice President Joe Biden earlier this week, as the Obama administration advocates for infrastructure spending.
Georgia has already begun dredging the Savannah River to allow larger container ships to reach interior ports, but not without resistance from South Carolina. More recently, however, Haley, Deal and their lieutenants have begun arguing that both shipping centers are important.