Work continues to double the capacity at the Purrysburg Water Treatment Plant in Jasper County. The project is expected to be finished by summer 2025. COURTESY BEAUFORT-JASPER WATER & SEWER AUTHORITY

A record-high demand for water left Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority with a mere 4 million gallons of water in its system on May 18. That might sound like a lot, but the utility currently produces 39 million gallons a day at its two plants.

The 34.9-million-gallon peak usage resulted in discolored water for some of its 63,000 customers. Even higher peaks could cause a loss of pressure, something that could threaten firefighters’ access to enough water, or require a boiled water advisory in both counties.

A little more than two weeks later – on June 4 – BJWSA issued another press release requesting that customers temporarily reduce their water usage by postponing outdoor water use (irrigation, washing cars and filling pools), and washing only full loads of laundry and dishes.

Several pumps were knocked out of service by a power surge at the water plant in Okatie, causing a reduction in treated water production. The pumps have been repaired, but the trend in water usage remains a concern.

“It absolutely is disconcerting, and we worry that it may get worse as more and more people move to the area,” said Pamela Flasch, director of public affairs for BJWSA. “It is vital that we educate customers to tweak their usage, especially in the early morning hours, to avoid more widespread occurrences of discolored water or, even worse, boil water advisories or service outages.”

The water authority is working to increase production and capacity with a $52 million project to double its capacity at the Purrysburg Water Treatment Plant in Jasper County, but it will not be complete until summer 2025.

There is no particular type of entity responsible for the water usage, but BJWSA can predict what type of use has the greatest impact, and it is working with professional landscapers, neighborhood associations, property management companies and other groups to adjust their morning irrigation routines.

“Encouraging people to adjust their watering schedule is the least invasive method for our community to buy the needed time to complete our water treatment system expansion,” Flasch said. “We aren’t asking people to stop watering altogether; they don’t even need to use less water, just adjust when they water.”

BJWSA suggests watering no more than three days per week, on a rotating schedule. Customers with odd-numbered addresses are asked to reset their irrigation times to water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Those with even-numbered addresses are asked to irrigate on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

No irrigation should occur on Mondays or any day between the hours of 3 a.m. or 9 a.m., which is peak usage time for household water use.

“We see this trend every spring starting in mid-April and lasting until late June, when summer storms start to relieve people’s desire to water their lawns. It is kind of like hurricane season here in the Lowcountry. We know it is coming, we just don’t know how bad it’s going to be,” Flasch said. “Week after week we can see the water-consumption-storm clouds gathering. We can take steps to prepare, … and we do.”

If the system loses too much pressure, not only would the water become discolored by mineral sediment, but there would be a loss of service throughout the whole system, including fire service. Once service was restored, those on the system would be required to boil water for at least 24 hours or until BJWSA could confirm the water was free of harmful bacteria.

“Every year this consumption-storm gets worse as more people move to the area, and land that was once forested becomes a lawn that needs irrigation to stay lush,” she said. “While golf courses irrigate a lot, they almost always have their own water supply, and either pull water from wells or their onsite ponds. They aren’t using treated water, and these aren’t really a cause for concern.”

A single home irrigation system can easily use between 200 and 500 gallons of water an hour, depending on the property. If customers would follow an every-other-day rotating schedule, BJWSA will be able to buy the time needed to finish construction at the Purrysburg plant.

There are other ways to conserve water as well, according to Ellen Comeau, a water resources extension agent with the Clemson Cooperative Extension.

“Rain barrels can offset water use. The number one question I hear is ‘I don’t have a gutter. Can I use a rain barrel?’ The answer is yes,” Comeau said. “Watch your house when it rains. It is very likely you can see water at the corners of the roof where there isn’t a gutter, and you can catch the water there. Some barrels come with concave lids so the water can slide right into the barrel.”

For those who live in gated communities, Comeau said it is dependent upon one’s homeowners’ association rules, but if rain barrels are permitted, residents can save hundreds of gallons of water.

“Most barrels come in 50- to 100-gallon sizes. A 1,000 square-foot roof can produce 623 gallons of water,” she said. “You can daisy-chain the barrels together to collect as much as you can.”

Comeau warned, however, that roof water is not to be consumed by humans or pets. It is only for watering plants and lawns.

“This also is not something you can use as a potable water,” she said. “You never know what has been up on the roof, so you can’t drink it.”

She also noted that rain barrels when full can weigh several hundred pounds and will need to be secured to the house or fenced in so they don’t roll over.

A second suggestion Comeau made is to use native plants in one’s landscape and garden.

“Native plants on average use less water, and less or no fertilizer or pesticides because they were growing here even before we came by, and have adapted to these weather conditions,” she said. “Clemson has an amazing program called Carolina Yards. On the website, there is a plant database that shows you don’t have to sacrifice beauty. There usually is a plant you can use in your yard if you want to do a native ground cover, or a plant for full shade, or for full sun.”

Chat with a local nursery, or call the Beaufort County extension office at 843-470-5109, or drop by the office at 18 John Galt Road in Beaufort, where the Lowcountry Master Gardeners Association is also located.

“Anything that uses water contributes to the problem,” said Flasch, “but, if we can just get customers to make the requested adjustments to their irrigation schedule, we can avoid the inconvenience of discolored water or much worse.”

For more information, visit bjwsa.org/water-use or call 843-987-9200.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.