Lawsuit argues for South Carolina's fair share of water

Days after a drought response committee declared all of South Carolina at some level of drought, the state attorney general warned Barnwell County residents that the state is in danger of drying out from a man-made cause too.

State Attorney General Henry McMaster spoke at the quarterly Barnwell County Republican meeting Feb. 23 about the "water war" lawsuit that South Carolina is having with North Carolina.

The outcome of this litigation could have ramifications on how Georgia and South Carolina share water from the Savannah River to the west of Barnwell County in the future.

At the heart of the matter is a fair apportionment or usage of shared water sources from rivers bordering North and South Carolina.

McMaster said he wanted to alert people in the Central Savannah River Area about this case in the Upstate and why they should be concerned as well.

If North Carolina can take advantage of the Catawba River at South Carolina's expense, it could set a precedent where Georgia could use an unfair amount of the water from the Savannah River, again at the Palmetto State's detriment, he said.

"If they can take the water from the Catawba River, then they can take it from the Savannah River too," McMaster said "They are running out of water in Beaufort and Hilton Head. The city of Atlanta is toying with the idea of running a line to the Savannah River. Ladies and gentlemen, we are in a fight."

In 1991, the North Carolina legislature passed an interbasin transfer statute that allows the state to transfer large amounts of water from one river basin in the state - including the Catawba River basin - to other North Carolina basins.

This same statute allows the Tarheel State to move at least 48 million gallons of water daily from the Catawba River to elsewhere for that state's usage. The most recent transfer was in January 2007, according to the legal complaint McMaster's office filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2007.

North Carolina since then has increased the volume of water it siphons from the Catawba daily, McMaster said.

The complaint asserts that North Carolina is using more than its equitable share of water from rivers shared by both states and leaving little for fair usage by South Carolina for power generation, industries, agriculture and recreation.

In the Supreme Court lawsuit, South Carolina's plea is that the N.C. interbasin transfer statute cannot be used to determine the share of water for both states. The plea also demands that the N.C. statute is invalid because it allows North Carolina to transfer more than an equitable apportionment of water for itself without regard to South Carolina, according to the filed legal complaint.

The lawsuit between South Carolina - as the plaintiff - and North Carolina - as the defendant - is unique in that it is being treated as a trial case by the U.S. Supreme Court, which primarily hears appeals, McMaster said.

"This is a case so important that we thought we should take it straight to the Supreme Court," he said. "It's now resting in the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court."

Getting the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case in "original jurisdiction" or as a trial case was the first hurdle South Carolina had to overcome, McMaster said.

The second hurdle was having special interest groups like Duke Power and the city of Charlotte, N.C. barred from their intervention in the case. The United States Solicitor General, Edwin S. Kneedler, who coordinates cases for the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled in favor of the Palmetto State Feb. 20, McMaster said.