At the time of its groundbreaking, it was described by organizers and advocates as “the largest economic investment in Saluda County history.”
Last week, a new $22 million water treatment plant along the shores of Lake Murray was the bright, shining centerpiece of a regional celebration – and the topic of much discussion about the future of drinking water in the Midlands.
A gaggle of local, state and national dignitaries gathered in the late summer sun Wednesday, Aug. 25 for the official ribbon-cutting at the new Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority (SCWSA) plant. Located at 581 Shealy Road, about 11 miles north of Batesburg-Leesville, the plant’s official mailing address says Leesville, but this new facility is clearly the pride of Saluda County.
“We’re on the front lines here,” said Jason Fell, the SCWSA’s soft-spoken and affable general manager. “We have people who call in every day, begging for water. They have wells, and your well is your best friend — until they work poorly. This plant gives us the ability and the capacity that we had no ability to offer until this plant was built.”
Last week’s ribbon-cutting came six months after the new water plant was first placed into operation in early February and some 19 years after the notion was first sprung in the minds of the project’s organizers. The ground along Lake Murray was broken in February 2017, and the succeeding two years would become a triumph of engineering and inter-governmental cooperation.
“We’re glad to see it come to fruition,” said U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-Laurens), who held the giant scissors and snipped the ribbon on the new facility as he was encircled by state legislators and various Saluda County politicians. “What this means is good, safe, clean drinking water for folks for a long time. The capacity is there for future growth, the needs of the employers here.”
Rep. Duncan’s office was central to helping the SCWSA secure funding for the project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office, including an initial $7.1 million grant from USDA-RD that jumpstarted the construction.
Watering the local economy
Rep. Duncan believes the new water plant will become an engine for future economic growth in Saluda County and across the region.
“The residential stuff along the lake, those folks that are on private wells, now are going to have access to other drinking water that’s clean and readily available,” he said. “You’ve already had companies looking at Saluda County, and this will give another economic development tool to attract those businesses, knowing they’ve got a good, plentiful water supply.”
In March of this year, just one month after the plant came online, water samples from the Saluda County facility won the Best Tasting Water Award at the South Carolina Environmental Conference in Myrtle Beach.
The new plant currently has a production capacity of six million gallons of water daily, with the potential to upgrade to millions more.
“It offers us ample supply to provide safe, clean drinking water to all of the western Midlands region,” Mr. Fell said. “I’m talking about Batesburg-Leesville, Gilbert/Summit, Monetta, Ridge Spring, the Town of Saluda and all the western part of Saluda County.”
The SCWSA’s new plant withdraws water from “the run of the river,” an intake point that is designed to always be at least seven feet below the surface of Lake Murray – even at the lake’s lowest draw-down level, according to Mr. Fell. The withdrawal point’s location on the upper end of Lake Murray has the effect of “suppressing turbidity (cloudiness or haziness, loss of transparency) during rain events,” he said.
One of the existing industries excited about the new plant and its increased capacity is Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, one of the largest producers of peaches in the region.
“This is just great for the whole county,” said Jason Rodgers, vice-president of operations for Titan Farms. “It allows us to grow now, because if we don’t have water, we can’t grow. And obviously, the other industries here, if they don’t water, they can’t grow either. This just allows us to expand in the future. This thing is going to pay dividends for a long time.”
Titan Farms now receives its water supply from the Town of Ridge Spring, which currently purchases its water from the Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority as well as the Town of Batesburg-Leesville. In a typical summer month, Titan Farms uses around four million gallons for its agri-business operations.
“It’s reliable water,” Mr. Rodgers said of the newly-christened Saluda County water facility. “We’re at the tail end of Saluda County, so a booster plant like this, a filtration system like this, gives us better water. We use a lot of water to pack peaches, and we have a processing plant that uses a lot of water.”
Ready to serve municipal customers
Mayor Pat Asbill of Ridge Spring, recently re-elected to serve the interests of her village, sees the new water plant as perhaps a turning point for the Ridge region.
“We’re looking for good water. We’re looking for more water, and it seems like Saluda County Water and Sewer offers that. So, we’re anxious to deal with them,” she said.
Currently, the Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority provides around eight million gallons of water to the Town of Ridge Spring each month. The Town of Batesburg-Leesville sells Ridge Spring around 18 million gallons of water per month.
Buying water exclusively from Saluda County and stepping away from its existing contract with Batesburg-Leesville is not in the immediate future for Ridge Spring “but it’s something we’re looking at,” according to Mayor Asbill.
“We have been a happy customer of Batesburg-Leesville since 1992, and they supply us good water. We are just needing additional water to serve our agricultural customers,” she said.
Batesburg-Leesville Mayor Lancer Shull and Town Manager Ted Luckadoo were among the local dignitaries on-hand for the Saluda County ribbon-cutting. This, after a proposed partnership between the Town and the SCWSA fell through several years ago.
Currently, the Town of Batesburg-Leesville is working on securing a feasibility analysis for an alternative water supply for the Town. The Town’s Request for Qualifications for an engineering firm to conduct that feasibility study, released in October 2018, states that Batesburg-Leesville’s efforts to solve its current water quantity issues “included a partnership with Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority (SCWSA) for a joint venture new water production facility utilizing Lake Murray as the source water. That option, however, failed due to a falling out between parties at the time.”
Now that the SCWSA has gone solo and its construction effort has been completed, and now that it is pumping millions of gallons water every day, Mr. Fell said the Authority would be more than willing to revisit the idea of having the Town of Batesburg-Leesville sign on as a customer.
“We have plenty of water for ourselves as well as to wholesale to other entities neighboring us,” he said. “For instance with Batesburg-Leesville, they could have options to purchase capacity into the future that they could market. So if I have the ability, with high-rating this plant to six million (gallons per day), they could buy capacity shares or have options to buy capacity when they need it and be able to market to new industries.”
The new Saluda County water plant likely will be a model for other water systems looking to upgrade their facilities. Rep. Duncan announced during this remarks at the ribbon-cutting that Laurens County is already eyeing the plant as a template for their water system.
“They’re going to model this facility up there. That project is going to start this year,” he said. “It’s going to be almost identical.”
For now, the Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority is content to keep the pumps flowing clean, good-tasting water – and just see what that flow of H20 grows in the region. At least one of the Authority’s customers has an idea of what he would like to see sprout.
“Hopefully, little ol’ Saluda County won’t be ‘little ol’ for too much longer,” Mr. Rodgers said.
Story by Tony Baughman / Posted September 10, 2019