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Consolidation right choice for some utilities

Water and wastewater systems across the country face challenges such as water shortages, rising energy costs, increased population and growing demand for water services, additional federal and state regulations, and aging infrastructure. Many communities have joined together to form regional water or wastewater systems as a way to improve their efficiency and save on operating costs.

The Lowcountry Regional Water System is about to mark its first anniversary. The LRWS, which became active on June 1, 2013, is operated jointly by Hampton County and the municipalities of Brunson, Gifford, Hampton, Varnville and Yemassee. Each member entity appoints a representative to serve on the system's board of commissioners.
 
LRWS took over the water and sewer assets (property, pipes, wells, tanks, pumps, vehicles, equipment, etc.) of the member entities and has a new main office location. The goal of the consolidation is to improve long-term water quality and efficiency. Customers have noticed some immediate changes, such as the ability to pay their bills in multiple ways, including online, said LRWS General Manager Brian Burgess.

Improved operations also mean a larger staff better able to respond to customer needs, he said. Where an individual town's plant may have had one superintendent responsible for maintaining and fixing lines himself, now the system has an in-house engineer.

Several projects are in the works for the new regional system. During the next 12 to 20 months, the water lines of the towns of Brunson and Gifford will be linked, allowing them to support each other. The Town of Yemassee will have its wastewater lines extended, allowing it to accept more waste. In addition, LRWS is replacing Yemassee's elevated water storage tank, which was built in the 1930s and no longer meets DHEC regulations.

 Yemassee water storage tank
Town of Yemassee

LRWS also will be able to improve water and sewer services to industrial parks and attract economic development to rural areas, Burgess said.

On their own, each small town struggled with DHEC compliance issues, Burgess said. As a larger system, LRWS has the ability to respond to regulations and deal with any technical and financial issues, he said.
 
"Overall, with new regulations every year from the EPA and DHEC, small towns cannot continue to operate and do all this on their own," said Hampton Mayor John Rhoden. Rhoden is also chair of the LRWS board of commissioners. "Consolidation is what's coming all over the state."
 
Other municipalities around the state see the benefit of being part of a regional system, such as the City of Florence. Florence won a 2014 Achievement Award from the Municipal Association for its creation of the Pee Dee Regional Wastewater Management Facility.
 
 
Pee Dee Regional Wastewater Management Facility
 
The City of Cayce, along with the Town of Lexington and the Joint Municipal Water and Sewer Commission, opened the Cayce Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant in 2013. The City of Cayce had an aging plant that did not have the capacity to keep up with the growth and demand of the region, and DHEC requested that the Town of Lexington close its wastewater plant.
 
 
Cayce Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant
 
Rather than use taxpayer dollars to build separate plants, the municipalities decided to work together to treat wastewater for the region. The new plant allows Cayce to serve as the regional wastewater provider for all of Lexington County and to offer services to Calhoun County.
 
The City of Beaufort is part of the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority, a special purpose district created by the South Carolina legislature almost 50 years ago. Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said that from his city's perspective, the regional system has been "extraordinarily positive" and sees future opportunities for Beaufort to work with the BJWSA. He thinks the two entities should be working together for long-term planning purposes.