An upstream perspective on water management and conservation

Editor’s note: This post is guest-authored by Herb Burnham, Lake Hartwell Association Executive Director. In this post, he provides a perspective on the importance of adaptive water management and communal efforts in water conservation. 

In just the first few days of July as I draft this article, I am listening to the wonderful sound of rain. We are experiencing an exceptionally wet summer and our beautiful lakes have once again recovered from a devastating period of drought. Now that the latest “crisis” has passed it’s very easy to relax and put our water concerns “back on the shelf.” In this part of the world we are truly blessed, and somewhat spoiled, with more-than adequate supplies of fresh water. I can’t help but remember a job assignment that took me to Saudi Arabia years ago and my having to learn, by necessity, how to conserve water. At that time the average family in America used more than 200 gallons of water per day, and the average Saudi family about 20 gallons. I will never forget my amazement watching a young fellow thoroughly wash a very dirty car with a rag and one two-gallon bucket of water. When necessary, we can adapt.

During the last two droughts the question was often asked why permit holders had not implemented rationing and/or other conservation measures. My first thought was that in the not-too-distant future when we have stretched our water resources to the limit, the price of water will reflect its true value and the law of supply and demand will take care of the problem. When that happens we will all have to be adaptive – and may even learn how to wash our cars with a rag and one two-gallon bucket of very expensive water.

For years the Lake Hartwell Association has been advocating for the Corps to become more adaptable in the management of basin water in an effort to keep lake levels as close to full as possible, especially during periods of drought. Likewise, adaptability in the conservative use of water is something we should all learn, apply, advocate for, and pass on to future generations. This is no small task considering the size of the Savannah River Basin (SRB), the policies and politics of two states and the federal government, and the large number and variety of users (municipal, industrial, agricultural, environmental, recreational, and others). It’s a challenge that must be taken on as a partnership of the two states, and include all SRB stakeholders and permitted users. Success will depend on the two states providing strong, aggressive, coordinated and continuous leadership.

Georgia developed a statewide water plan several years ago that addresses water management issues basin by basin – including its half of the SRB. South Carolina is now in the process of developing a similar statewide plan. The plans must address conservation issues. The states control the issuance of water use permits and are therefore responsible for determining and enforcing conservation measures applicable to each permit. These measures will vary based on the intended water usage, and permitted users should be required to develop and implement adaptive conservation programs for continuously improving conservation of the water used, as well as improving the quality of water returned to the basin. This is certainly not a new concept, rather one the responsible state agencies need to address in terms of current effectiveness, as well as future adaptation and enforcement.

Now, if I may, an opportunity and a challenge: Nature has once again reminded us what droughts can do to our beautiful lakes and downstream needs. Now is the time, before we again become complacent, to come together in a SRB-wide partnership to seriously address all water management and conservation issues. During their 2013 legislative sessions both states formed a water caucus made up of state representatives and senators. State Representatives Don Bowen and Allen Powell, representing South Carolina and Georgia respectively, led this effort. The two caucuses held a joint meeting and committed to support the implementation of adaptive management of SRB water levels and flows by the Corps of Engineers.

As the two caucuses move ahead with defining specific plans, goals and objectives, there will exist a timely opportunity for both to include water conservation issues in their 2014 caucus agendas, and to challenge all permitted users, and other SRB stakeholders, to join in the partnership aimed at addressing both adaptive flow and conservation issues. Our best hope for progress on water conservation is one that involves the combined effort of all stakeholders.

Note: The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Savannah District, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or the U.S. Army.


About U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District oversees a multimillion dollar military construction program at 11 Army and Air Force installations in Georgia and North Carolina. We also manage water resources across the Coastal Georgia region, including maintenance dredging of the Savannah and Brunswick harbors; operation of three hydroelectric dams and reservoirs along the upper Savannah River; and administration of an extensive stream and wetland permitting and mitigation program within the state of Georgia. Follow us on Twitter @SavannahCorps and on
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