Water use and reporting regulations in South Carolina have gone through substantial changes over time. Current regulations contain permitting, registration, and reporting requirements for significant water withdrawals throughout the state. The relevant regulations vary across sectors and different sources of water (i.e., surface water and groundwater withdrawals). Understanding how water use is regulated and reported will contribute to the sustainable management of water supplies into the future. This article describes the main regulations and reporting requirements for water withdrawals, including a brief overview of historical and additional discussion regarding current requirements of water use sectors for surface or groundwater sources.
Historical Water Withdrawal Regulation and Reporting
Significant changes to water use regulations and reporting requirements in South Carolina include
- 1967: The passage of the SC Water Resources Planning and Coordination Act laid the groundwork for the creation of the SC Water Resources Commission in 1969 to advise and assist in developing a comprehensive water resources policy.1
- 1969: The passage of the SC Groundwater Use Act initiated reporting requirements for groundwater withdrawals greater than or equal to 100,000 gallons on any day that were located within a Capacity Use Area.2
- 1982: The SC Water Use Reporting and Coordination Act was passed and gave authority to the SC Water Resources Commission to require reporting by anyone using greater than or equal to 100,000 gallons of surface or groundwater in any one day.3 However, reporting remained voluntary, and not all water users provided withdrawal information.2
- 1985: The SC Drought Response Act formalized the need for a drought response plan and formed a statewide Drought Response Committee.4
- 1993: Revisions to the SC Water Resources Planning and Coordination Act dissolved the SC Water Resources Commission and divided its responsibilities between the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC), which implements water regulations, and the SC Department of Natural Resources, which leads water planning.1 The SC Drought Response Act was revised.5
- 2000: Previous legislation was renamed and revised to implement a mandatory reporting threshold of more than three million gallons (MG) in any one month.2 Water users below the 3MG in any month threshold may continue to voluntarily report their water withdrawals to SCDHEC; therefore, comprehensive data for smaller water users has not been collected since this legislative revision. The SC Drought Response Act was revised to update options for response to drought.5
- 2010: Passage of the SC Surface Water Withdrawal, Permitting Use, and Reporting Act effectively converted South Carolina’s water law from riparian water rights to a “regulated riparianism” system.6 The Act (effective January 1, 2011) applies to any entity that withdraws more than 3MG of surface water in any month. Exemptions include the following water uses: instream dredging or sand mining, emergency withdrawals, naturally occurring evaporation from impoundments, hydropower generation, withdrawals for wildlife habitat management, agricultural withdrawals from a private source that meets the definition of “farm pond,” and specific withdrawals from a pond supplied only by groundwater or surface water entirely situated on a privately owned property.7 Annual reporting requirements were maintained for water uses that exceed 3MG in any month.8
Current Water Withdrawal Regulation and Reporting
Currently, in South Carolina, a permit or registration is required for a surface or groundwater withdrawal in excess of 3MG in any month unless specifically exempted. However, surface water and groundwater withdrawals are managed under separate regulations and planning processes. Surface water withdrawal regulations apply statewide, with permits and registrations required depending on the use of the water withdrawn.7,8 Groundwater withdrawals require a permit if located within a Capacity Use Area (CUA), generally to the south and east of the Fall Line, and a registration if located outside of a CUA.9 Both surface and groundwater permits are issued for the total amount of water that a user can withdraw from a specific source. Surface water registrations include a withdrawal limit, but users may withdraw beyond their registered volume without modifying their surface water registration, as long as withdrawals are not “substantially greater” than the registered amount.8 Groundwater registrations require reporting and do not contain specific limits on withdrawal volume.
Surface Water Withdrawal
Per the SC Surface Water Withdrawal, Permitting, Use, and Reporting Act, if withdrawing more than 3MG in any one month, a water user must secure either a registration or a permit from SCDHEC.7 Surface water withdrawal requires registration for agricultural use or a permit for all other uses, unless otherwise exempted.7 The largest reported water usage, hydroelectric power generation, is exempted from permitting as this water is passed through turbines but is not technically removed from the river; however, reporting requirements do apply. Table 1 summarizes requirements by water use sector. Violations of these regulations are subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per day.8
Permit durations range from twenty to fifty years.8 Water users initiating withdrawals after January 1, 2011 (“new” withdrawers) should be issued a permit for a minimum duration of twenty years; while water users prior to January 1, 2011 (“existing” withdrawers) should have been issued a permit for a minimum duration of thirty years.7 Municipalities or other governmental agencies may receive a permit duration of up to fifty years.8 Agricultural registrations for surface water withdrawal do not expire and cannot be transferred.
Fees and additional requirements vary depending on water use sector and timing of initial withdrawal. For example, application fees are higher for “new” users ($7,500) than for “existing” users ($1,000), while the same annual operating fees ($1,000) are required for all permittees. Additional permit fees include $2,000 for processing a permit modification and $1,000 for permit renewal with modifications.8 No fees are charged to surface water withdrawal registrations (i.e., agriculture).8
Decisions to approve a water withdrawal are based on different factors depending on if the application is for a permit or registration and if the applicant is considered new or existing. For non-agricultural withdrawals that existed pre-2011, permits were issued based on the largest volume as determined by previously documented use, current treatment capacity, or designed capacity of the intake structure.10 For new or expanded existing non-agricultural users, permits are issued based on reasonableness, availability of water at point of withdrawal based on Safe Yield calculations, and are subject to minimum instream flows.10 Permits for new users also require public notice, including a mandatory public hearing for proposed new interbasin transfers.10 For agricultural users, existing registrations were based on the highest previous water usage, and new registrations are based on the amount of water requested by the proposed withdrawer and availability of water at the point of withdrawal based on Safe Yield calculations.10 Reported surface water withdrawals are typically significantly less than permitted amounts.
Actions taken according to the SC Drought Response Act (amended 2000) supersede surface water withdrawal permits.7 An Operations and Contingency Plan (Contingency Plan) is required of some permittees to address providing an adequate water supply during low flow periods (e.g., droughts).8 For new permittees, or expanded withdrawals by existing permittees, the Contingency Plan is an enforceable part of the permit and controls withdrawal volumes when the flow volume in the surface water source is less than the minimum instream flow.8 The Contingency Plan may require the use of a supplemental water source (e.g., groundwater, drought contingency ponds, connections to other water providers) in response to low-flows to protect minimum stream flows as well as downstream permitted and registered withdrawals. Existing withdrawals must only address “appropriate industry standards for water conservation.”8 A Contingency Plan is not required for permittees withdrawing from a federally licensed impoundment or for any registered (i.e., agricultural) withdrawal.8
During low-flow conditions, existing permittees must implement industry-appropriate water conservation measures.8 Registered (i.e., agricultural) water withdrawals are not required to have Contingency Plans nor to meet Minimum Instream Flow standards. To summarize, reductions in surface water withdrawals may be required for permittees based on low flow conditions; however, reductions in registration withdrawals may only be triggered if substantially more surface water than the registered amount is withdrawn and if it results in detrimental impacts.8
Table 1. Overview of SC surface water withdrawal permit and registration requirements, applicable if more than three million gallons are withdrawn in any month.8
|Water Use Sector||Withdrawal
Permit or Registration Required
|Duration of Permit or Registration
|Basis for Maximum Permit or Registration Withdrawal Volume||Minimum Instream Flow (MIF) or Operations and Contingency Plan Requirements|
|Permit||30–40||20–40||Highest Past Use
Intake Structure Capacity
|Irrigation – Agriculture, Aquaculture||Registration||Never expires||Never expires||Highest Past Use||Requested Amount,
up to Safe Yield
|Not Required||Not Required|
|Power – Hydro, Pumped Storage||Exempt||30–40||20–40||Exempt||Exempt||Not Required||Not Required|
|Power – Thermoelectric (including Nuclear)||Permit||30–40||20–40||Highest Past Use
Intake Structure Capacity
|Reasonableness Criteria||Federal Licensing Agreement** or
|Water Supply||Permit||30–50||20–50||Highest Past Use
Intake Structure Capacity
|Reasonableness Criteria||Federal Licensing Agreement** or
*Operational and Contingency Plans for existing surface water withdrawal permittees must only address “appropriate industry standards for water conservation.”8
**Withdrawals from a federally licensed impoundment must follow Low Inflow Protocol plan included in approved Licensing Agreement.
Groundwater is not uniformly distributed across the state. Most of the groundwater and all the major aquifers are located to the east of the Fall Line.2 Capacity Use Areas (CUA) have been created to improve the effectiveness of monitoring and managing the use of the state’s aquifers (figure 1). Establishment of CUAs has occurred over time: Lowcountry (1981, expanded 2008), Waccamaw (2004), Trident (2017), Western (2018), and Santee Lynches (2021).2,11
Regardless of water use sector, each groundwater user capable of withdrawing more than 3MG in any month requires registration if located outside of a Capacity Use Area (e.g., counties to the northwest of the Fall Line, figure 1) or a permit if the withdrawal is located within a Capacity Use Area, with some exemptions.12 Exemptions from the regulation include groundwater withdrawals for emergency use, non-consumptive use, wildlife habitat management, and noncommercial household use.13 Exemptions from permitting and public notice include dewatering operations, Type I wells in crystalline bedrock within a CUA, and replacement wells of equivalent capacity.13
Groundwater withdrawal permits must be in accordance with the approved groundwater management plan for the appropriate CUA, and permit limits may be reduced based on demonstrated need (table 2) or adverse impacts to the aquifer or other water users.10 Permits for all water use sectors are issued for up to five years in duration.13 Groundwater permit applications must include a Best Management Plan that identifies water conservation measures to protect water quality and should include conservation techniques, alternate sources of water, justification that water use is necessary, and a statement specifying the beneficial use of the withdrawn water.13 A public notice is required if the groundwater permit application requests a new or increased withdrawal or if there is sufficient public interest.13 A permit may be revoked for failure to provide a groundwater use report.13 No fees apply to groundwater withdrawal applications.10
Table 2. General guidelines, by water sector, for reasonable use determination in SC groundwater withdrawal applications.10
|Water Use Sector||General Reasonable Use Guidelines|
|Aquaculture||Size of operation (acreage)
Depth of holding ponds, lagoons, or lakes
|Golf Course||Current systematic and industry-based standards
Duration of irrigation
|Industry||Current systematic and industry-based standards
Variability based on size and type of industry
|Irrigation||Current systematic and industry-based standards
Duration of irrigation
Stress period buffering
|Power – Thermoelectric||Current systematic and industry-based standards
Availability of alternative water sources
|Power – Nuclear||Current systematic and industry-based standards|
|Water Supply||Current systematic and industry-based standards
Per capita use
|Other||Variability based on size and type of industry|
Water Withdrawal Reporting
Anyone withdrawing more than 3MG in any month must report the quantity of water withdrawn on an annual basis; qualifying groundwater withdrawers must report before January 30,13 and surface water withdrawals must be reported before February 1 of the following year.8 Water quantity may be measured with a meter or may be determined using a variety of other methods, including the capacity of the pump (in conjunction with a meter or log), the capacity of cooling systems, United States Geological Survey standard methods, or other reliable methods approved by SCDHEC.8 Even still, obtaining accurate and complete data on water withdrawals in South Carolina has been recognized as a challenge for many years. In fact, a Water Resources Commission established in 1969 to study water policy noted the difficulty of the task without having transparent data on actual water usage.14
Understanding both how much water is available and how water is regulated are critical to evaluating the potential sustainability of future supplies. Changes in regulations, including reporting requirements, impact the amount of data available and the period of record that can be evaluated. This article discussed a brief history of water regulations in the state and permitting, registration, and reporting requirements. Future work can further consider the water withdrawal and consumption as well as the spatial and temporal distribution of water use in the state.
- Gellici J. Updating the South Carolina Water Plan. Columbia (SC): SC Department of Natural Resources. 2011 May [accessed 2021 Aug 16]. https://dc.statelibrary.sc.gov/bitstream/handle/10827/25384/DNR_Updating_the_SC_Water_Plan_2011-05.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.
- South Carolina State Water Assessment. Wachob A, Park AD, Newcome Jr R, editors. 2nd ed. Columbia (SC): SC Department of Natural Resources Land, Water and Conservation Division. 2009. https://www.dnr.sc.gov/water/hydro/HydroPubs/assessment/SC_Water_Assessment_2.pdf.
- South Carolina Water Use Reporting and Coordination Act of 1982. S. 282, 104. https://www.scstatehouse.gov/query.php?search=DOC&searchtext=water&category=LEGISLATION&session=104&conid=36942172&result_pos=0&keyval=1040242&numrows=100.
- South Carolina Drought Response Act of 1985. H. 2243, 106. https://www.scstatehouse.gov/sess106_1985-1986/bills/2243.htm.
- South Carolina Drought Response Act. https://www.scstatehouse.gov/code/t49c023.php.
- Taylor MM. Brief overview of South Carolina water law [PowerPoint presentation). Presented at: State Water Planning Process Advisory Committee Meeting. 2018 Sep 6: Columbia (SC). https://www.clemson.edu/public/water-assessment/downloads/Water%20Planning%20Committee%20Presentation%209-6-181.pdf.
- South Carolina Surface Water Withdrawal, Permitting Use, and Reporting Act. https://www.scstatehouse.gov/code/t49c004.php.
- S.C. Code Ann. Regs. 61-119 (2012). https://scdhec.gov/sites/default/files/media/document/R.61-119.pdf.
- Groundwater Use and Reporting Act. https://www.scstatehouse.gov/code/t49c005.php.
- Butler A. PPAC groundwater permitting update [PowerPoint presentation]. Presented at: State Water Planning Process Advisory Committee (PPAC), 2019 May 6: Columbia (SC). https://www.clemson.edu/public/water-assessment/downloads/ppac_gw-5-6-2019.pdf.
- Santee-Lynches Area (Preliminary). Columbia (SC): SC Department of Health and Environmental Control. [accessed 2021 Nov 3]; https://scdhec.gov/BOW/groundwater-use-reporting/groundwater-management-planning/santee-lynches-area-preliminary.
- Groundwater Use Reporting. Columbia (SC): SC Department of Health and Environmental Control. [accessed 2021 Feb 3]. https://scdhec.gov/BOW/groundwater-use-reporting.
- S.C. Code Ann. Regs. 61-113 (2006). https://scdhec.gov/sites/default/files/media/document/R.61-113.pdf.
- Taylor M. Evolution of surface water regulation in South Carolina. Columbia (SC): South Carolina Law Review. 2015;66(3):639–655. https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4133&context=sclr.
SC Department of Health and Environmental Control Surface Water Withdrawal Website
SC Department of Health and Environmental Control Groundwater Resources Website