Game changer: Utilities in two states unite to protect source water
January 3, 2018

By Ann Espinola

Five utilities in South Carolina and Georgia are pooling their resources to protect their large watershed, investing a combined $3.3 million over three years in one of the largest bi-state utility collaboration projects of its kind. 

“We believe this is an unprecedented partnership in terms of the large number of utilities and the fact that it involves two states,” said Peter Stangel, chief operating officer for the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, a catalyst to help develop source water protection programs around the country. “There could be other similar partnerships, but we’re not aware of any.”

The Savannah River project’s goal is to protect water quality along the river and improve land management practices in portions of the 2.8 million-acre watershed, with conservation easements as the most effective tool. The watershed provides drinking water for more than a million people.

The five utilities include the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority and the City of North Augusta, both in South Carolina; and Columbia County, and the cities of Augusta and Savannah, all in Georgia. 

The upstream utilities are contributing a combined $533,000 per year, and the downstream, $600,000 annually. 

“These utilities could simply react and deal with whatever regulations come down the pipeline,” said Braye Boardman, executive director of the Savannah River Clean Water Fund, the project’s financial deal-maker. “What sets them apart is they are being proactive. They have skin in the game and are working together to ensure a sustainable and affordable supply of clean water for generations to come.”

Tracy Mehan, AWWA’s executive director of government affairs, said he’s seen similar, smaller projects in New England, but the scope of the Savannah River project sets it apart. 

“Five utilities collaborating on an interstate source water protection effort is a big deal,” Mehan said.

Blueprint for protection 

More than three fourths of the Savannah River watershed is forest cover, which is increasingly recognized as producing water that is less expensive to treat, transport, and store than simply building more water treatment plants.

The five utilities – whose combined service area stretches 130 miles, from North Augusta to Savannah -- are teaming up to keep much of the watershed in some form of natural land.

“The Savannah River watershed is a huge area,” said Ed Saxon, general manager of the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority. “We are all medium-sized utilities – we’re not LA and New York – but working together, we can expand our efforts.”

Growing evidence suggests high-quality source water can lead to compelling utility savings. A 2008 report entitled Statistical Analysis of Drinking Water Treatment Plant Costs, Source Water Quality, and Land Cover Characteristics, cited a study that noted that excellent water quality saved seven U.S. cities $500,000 to $6 billion in avoided water treatment infrastructure costs (Postel).

A 2014 Journal-AWWA article explained the dynamic between forest cover and treatment costs.

“By maintaining high source water quality through natural infrastructure investments, treatment plants may avoid capital costs for some of the processes in conventional treatment, such as coagulation, flocculation, sedimentation, and more advanced treatment processes like membrane filtration and activated carbon,” wrote Mehan, Stangel, Todd Gartner, James Mulligan, J. Alan Roberson, and Yiyuan Qin.

The authors noted that treatment plants using high-quality raw water can reduce costs because fewer chemicals may be needed, such as coagulants, disinfectants, and pH adjusters.

Among the Savannah River partnership utilities, green infrastructure is an important component of their multi-tiered strategy, with a key focus coming down to this: conservation easements.

Conservation easements are voluntary, legally binding agreements between landowners and land trusts in which the owner retains control of the property, but agrees to prevent certain activities to protect conservation values, such as water quality.

In exchange, landowners may receive cash, possible tax incentives, the continued right to sell or pass the property on to their heirs, and the ability to preserve the beauty of their land. An easement may also reduce taxes paid by the estate’s beneficiary.

The Savannah River Clean Water Fund uses the utility contributions to leverage other resources, including Regional Conservation Partnership Program awards through the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

“As an example, a landowner might be land rich and cash poor and unable to donate an easement,” Boardman said. “The Savannah fund can match up resources in order to provide incentives to the landowner to protect their land.”

Recognizing that it would be impossible to buy hundreds of thousands of acres or pay for all those easements, the utilities prioritized the tracts based on forest type, soil type, etc.

They teamed up with The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina, which analyzed geographic information systems data to determine which parcels would suffer the greatest water quality degradation if they were developed or changed. 

The utility managers zeroed in on 210,000 acres labeled most critical in terms of water quality. Now, Boardman is working with local and regional land trusts to negotiate contracts with landowners to limit high-density developments and encourage best land management practices.

A portion of the funds are also set aside for science and research to improve the quality of water in the watershed. 

The king of source water protection endeavors is New York City’s 1997 initiative.  The city spent $2 billion on conservation easements and forest best management practices in its watersheds -- instead of $8 billion to $10 billion on a new filtration plant.

Though mammoth, that project involved just one state.

In the case of the Savannah River Clean Water Fund, utility managers work with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and multiple communities within the watershed. 

But first, the utility managers had to buy into the science of the project.

“Source water protection is a new notion, and when you are talking about spending your money 100 miles away from your jurisdiction on an easement that is in another state, you are talking about a really radical concept,” Saxon said.

From the beginning, all South Carolina and Georgia partners understood the land deals would come from all areas of the basin, Boardman said. Some would be close to their intake, and others would be further away.

“But all the partners agreed they would all benefit from the investment in the watershed protection efforts of all the partners,” Boardman said.

The genesis

To grasp the magnitude of the Savannah River collaboration, it is necessary to understand its impetus, which began on the river’s South Carolina side.

In 2009, a group of private landowners, along with state agencies in South Carolina, federal agencies, non-profits, and business and private interests recognized the explicit connection between forested lands and their impact on raw water supplies. They agreed to make protection of the river corridor and watershed a top priority.

The group’s grassroots effort led to creation of the Savannah River Clean Water Fund. Though the fund was established in 2014, it wasn’t until 2016 that it hired its executive director and opened its doors for business.

Private philanthropy played an important role in establishing the Savannah River Clean Water Fund. The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Family Foundation, long active in this area, provides operating support, as does the R. Howard Dobbs, Jr. Foundation, the Knobloch Family Foundation, and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities.

Savannah and Beaufort-Jasper signed a memorandum of understanding in June 2015 to work with each other and the fund to protect water quality in the Savannah River. Augusta signed on a few months later with North Augusta and Columbia County committing in 2016. 

Boardman still remembers the aha moment when the Georgia utilities fully bought into the source water protection program.

It occurred during an afternoon with regulators.

“I got the managers of the Georgia utilities in a car and we drove to Atlanta to visit the director of the Environmental Protection Division. He told us, ‘This is a good effort, the Savannah River Clean Water Fund, and what you all are trying to do,’ and he was impressed with the fund’s mission to control non-point source pollution. 

“The utility managers saw, from that conversation, some glimmer of hope their efforts to work on source water projection in the entire watershed would pay dividends for them down the road as far as treatment costs and regulatory costs.”

The road ahead

In mid-2017, the fund’s board approved its first conservation easement funding application on 1,900 farmland acres upstream, just south of Augusta. The deal is expected to close early this year.

“Those acres have been in the crosshairs of developers to put in hundreds of housing units,” Boardman said. “This will protect that property from ever being developed and will add a strong riparian buffer along the river to help filter out contaminants that may get in the water.”

Boardman’s sights are now cast downstream. 

“Right out of the gate the first year, what I hoped to do was find a land deal that got the upper water utilities excited, then find one in the lower basin that got the lower water utilities excited, so they can continue to sell this to their city governments.” 

The five utilities signed on to the project for a three-year trial period. The hope is the partnership can document enough successes to compel utility boards and local government to continue with the program.

“I’m hoping by year three we have well over 10,000 acres under easement protection,”  said Saxon, pictured at right.

Last month, the Savannah River Clean Water Fund, the five water utilities, and The Nature Conservancy chapters from South Carolina and Georgia, hosted an educational luncheon in Savannah for state legislators. 

“We wanted to show these legislators that local municipalities had money in the game and are working with other communities to protect their water supplies,” Boardman said. “Legislative sessions start this month in both Georgia and South Carolina and each state is going to look at land conservation bills that could have a positive effect on protecting water quality.

“We are hoping the legislators will see that this effort has an economic benefit to both states by protecting one of the region’s most vital economic engines – clean water.”

Mehan spoke at the luncheon on source water protection efforts. Coincidentally, AWWA’s Jan. 20 winter board meeting is in Savannah, where Saxon, Boardman, and Stangel, will share the utility partnership story with board members.

Meanwhile, Boardman continues to broker conservation easement deals. He also met recently with managers from other water systems in the region, hoping to sign on additional utilities and expand the partnership’s reach. 

“This project is a groundbreaking, national model for how two states and multiple utilities can work cooperatively to protect water sources,” Boardman said.

“Cities that have clean and abundant water supplies are taking proactive steps to protect them. These cities will be poised for economic growth and prosperity.”

Do you have a comment or story idea for Connections? Please contact Ann Espinola at or at 303-734-3454.