- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina trails much of the rest of the nation in money received from the federal government to help utilities provide clean drinking water and sewage systems.

Still, the state has received $176 million over five years from a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program that it in turns loans to local water systems for projects. That ranks 45th of the 50 states.

The 94 loans approved have ranged from $2 million to allow Abbeville to upgrade its water system, to $5.5 million for Darlington County to install water meters that can be read by satellites.

The Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority has received 10 loans worth nearly $41 million to upgrade its systems, while the town of Pamplico in Florence County borrowed $860,000 for a 200,000-gallon water tank, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

In most places across the country, the promise of clean, cheap, readily available water has been taken for granted, but that has begun to change. Farm runoff has polluted municipal water sources, drought has taken its toll on reservoirs and wells, and the aging underground networks of pipes that carry water to homes and businesses rupture all too frequently. Just as with crumbling bridges or congested highways, solutions don’t come cheap.

South Carolina will need to spend nearly $2 billion in the next 20 years to meet its water needs, according to a report DHEC sent to the EPA. So far, state officials said the money the state gets from the federal government and other sources has been enough to keep up with repair and growth demands.

The EPA estimates it will cost $384 billion over 20 years just to maintain the nation’s existing drinking water infrastructure. Replacing pipes, treatment plants and other infrastructure as well as expanding drinking water systems to handle population growth could cost as much as $1 trillion over the next quarter century. Without that investment, industry groups warn of a future with more infrastructure failures that will disrupt service, transportation and commerce.

Despite the need, the largest federal aid program for improving the nation’s drinking water system has more than $1 billion sitting unspent in government accounts, according to a review of data by The Associated Press. That is largely the result of project delays, poor management by some states and structural problems.

In South Carolina, just about 10 percent of the $176 million given to the state has not been spent.

Adding to the concerns over a lack of investment, many parts of the country simply don’t have enough water. Between the West and pockets of the Southeast, 71 million people are now affected by drought, according to federal calculations. And in a recent survey by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 40 of 50 state water managers said they anticipate supply shortages in at least part of their states over the next decade.

No state in the Southeast has been hit harder by drought this summer than South Carolina, where the U.S. Drought Monitor has a quarter of the state in a severe drought after several hot, dry months. But so far, no water systems have reported major shortages or have had to enforce water rationing rules.

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