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To ensure all South Carolinians have safe drinking water, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control needs greater authority to compel dozens of failing rural water systems to join forces with their neighbors to create economies of scale capable of financing upgrades that would be unaffordable otherwise.

Many small rural water systems have for years failed to deliver safe drinking water due to incompetence, worn-out infrastructure or lax enforcement of water quality standards, among other problems.

Worse, most small rural water providers simply cannot afford the kind of systemwide improvements needed even with grants and low-cost loans provided by state and federal agencies. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the needed repairs would cost about $1.8 billion statewide over 20 years.

“The needs are greater than all the resources combined,” Bonnie Ammons, head of the Rural Infrastructure Authority, recently told the House Legislative Oversight Committee. Since 2013, the RIA has distributed about $122 million in grants to help cope with the problem.

In response to questions from legislators, Ammons said she was unaware of any mechanism that would enable the state or DHEC to take over failing water systems. But she did say there had been recent discussions about compelling failing water agencies to merge with larger ones or form regional co-ops that would be better able to finance major improvements, something consultants recommended as far back as 2005.

In 2012, for example, when the Hampton County town of Gifford was facing insurmountable water system repairs, the mayor reached out to four neighboring towns and formed a regional water system that was better able to cope with the costs.

More often than not, however, small municipalities have resisted mergers, partly because their water systems bring in significant income, and officials are wary of ceding any control over that revenue.

Another problem, Ammons said, is that there is no incentive for successful systems to absorb smaller troubled systems.

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The State newspaper’s “Tainted Water” series documented dozens of cases in which rural water systems were contaminated by bacteria or higher-than-acceptable levels of lead or radium, both of which can have dire health effects.

In Denmark, city officials for up to 10 years used an unapproved chemical to treat rust-colored, bacteria-contaminated well water. In Jenkinsville in 2011, officials failed for four days to issue a boil-water alert because of contamination simply because the manager was out of town. The newspaper series also showed that DHEC often went easy on small rural agencies found in violation of drinking water standards.

Only once in recent memory has a failing water agency merged with a larger one. The City of Florence, under pressure from the state and federal government, agreed to take over the Timmonsville water system to resolve a 2013 lawsuit brought against the smaller town by the Environmental Protection Agency.

DHEC lacks the authority to take over water systems, but once DHEC has exhausted its regulatory remedies, it can ask a judge to appoint a receiver to operate a water system, an agency spokeswoman said. Certainly, DHEC should use all of the tools at its disposable, including asking a judge to intervene when appropriate.

Clean drinking water should be a basic right, and lawmakers should demand water suppliers, whether public or private, measure up to state standards.

In cases where water suppliers repeatedly fail to meet goals for improvement, the legislature should empower DHEC to hand them over to responsible operators. And the RIA should look at providing incentives for merging small water systems to create more fiscally robust agencies to help finance capital projects that would be impossible otherwise.

This editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston.

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