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Shrimp 'n Grits

Lowcountry Boil - a different recipe
Lee Walton

The Lowcounty's recent experience with Third-world water supply problems has given new meaning to a Charleston favorite, "Lowcountry Boil". This succulent combination of shrimp, crabs, sausage, potatoes, onions and corn, is boiled together with a heavy hand of Old Bay then consumed among friends with copious amounts of cold beer at a casual evening cookout. After the recent two-day "boil-water advisory" following the failure of Charleston CPW's single largest water main, "Lowcountry Boil" can now be taken literally.

It's been over three weeks, but the gaggle of higher paid CPW help still hasn't come up with the single cause that resulted in the almost catastrophic rupture of its 48" diameter main that supplies water to the entire distribution system. As reported in the Palter & Chatter on April 26th, CPW now doesn't think there was an isolated event that caused the failure but confirmed that it occurred during a period of peak Friday evening water usage coinciding with tens of thousands of Cooper River Bridge Run participants and thousands of other tourist in town to attend several local festivals and events.

Could this recent "weakest link" failure be simply an early warning from an overstressed, aging system pushed beyond its intended capabilities? Like most other public infrastructure serving our rapidly expanding region, Charleston CPW's water supply system has been over extended to serve sprawling suburbs on Daniel Island, West Ashley and most of the adjacent sea islands and resort barrier islands south of the peninsula. Extension of water service into these outlying areas has gone far beyond the intended limits envisioned by engineers that designed these systems several decades ago.

This short-sighted water supply solution to the expanding City limits of Charleston has been driven almost totally by the insatiable appetite of J. "Pericles" Riley who annexes any scrap of land capable of producing another tax dollar. For decades he has twisted the arms of the Commissioners of Public Works, stacked the Commission with his hand-picked cronies, and coerced them to extend new water and sewer mains to former "tomato fields" at no cost to a select few developers but at taxpayer's expense.

Although this "Free Utilities for Annexation" scheme has been somewhat curtailed in recent years simply due to the magnitude of its adverse impact upon other badly needed upgrade projects, it didn't happen soon enough to stop the Guggenheim Foundation from getting the "Poster Child" of "good-old-boy" deals. This Development Agreement will require CPW to spend almost a hundred million dollars over several decades to extend utilities into the upper Cainhoy Peninsula in order to serve the Guggenheim's immense holdings at taxpayer expense. This agreement and other shortsighted policies were implemented instead of water system improvements needed to enlarge transmission mains, increase redundancy and provide more storage tank capacity to meet higher peak usage period demands.

An excellent comparison of how a public water system should grow and expand is to visualize the growth of a Live Oak tree. As its canopy and branches extend upward and outward, its roots, trunk and main limbs also grow larger and stronger to provide both increased nourishment and strength - this systematic, concurrent growth is key to its survival. The recent, albeit thankfully brief, total loss of water throughout CPW's service area has exposed a top-heavy, swallow-rooted distribution system lacking redundancy and adequate storage capacity. A properly designed and maintained municipal water system would be able to suffer a major component failure and yet still provide safe, adequate service to all but an easily isolated part of its distribution system.

It's the same old Guns and Butter analogy taught in Economics 101. Relentless pressure from "Pericles" to annex and build subdivision after subdivision with reckless abandon has forced CPW to continuously extend free (to "good-old-boy" developers) water mains from the remotest extremities of its aging, overstressed system. These annexation driven water main extensions, the Butter, were built instead of needed upgrade projects, the Guns, to enlarge primary transmission mains, provide redundancy and construct additional storage tanks to meet peak demands.

As with his namesake, Charleston's own "Pericles" continues to build his Acropolis complete with a Parthenon (the Aquarium) and other planned temples to his ego instead of attending to the long neglected infrastructure of Charleston. Ah, but there's no glory in mundane out-of-sight, out-of-mind water systems, sanitary sewers or storm drains. What's a little flooding every high tide and besides, drinking bottled water generates more sales tax!

Charleston is about one more festival away from another "Lowcountry Boil."

Your Comments:

I was visting Charleston the weekend of the water problem so I agree with the primary point of this piece but I always wonder why it's okay for North Charleston, Mt. Pleasant and other cities in the tri-county to annex anything and everything possible but not "Pericles Joe"?

Posted by: Stan Wall at May 3, 2006 10:28 PM

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