These three locals share a deep connection to the water we drink, live around and play in.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
Living as we do in the Lowcountry, water nearly literally surrounds us. Those living along the string of barrier islands in our region see it everywhere they look, and even the mainlanders weave in and out of tidal creeks as they live their lives. Even if you don’t see it, it’s there.
Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”
— Ryunosuke Satoro
It’s essential to life, as much a part of us as the air we breathe, and it’s often the thing we take most for granted. We scour other planets looking for it, and we seek it out whenever the Lowcountry heat gets too much. It’s water, and for these three locals it’s the most important element there is.
Pioneering uses for recycled water
Hilton Head Public Service District General Manager Pete Nardi took a somewhat circuitous route to his career in water management. Starting his career in Claremont, New Hampshire, he worked as a reporter at “a small ma and pa weekly,” doing everything from writing copy and taking picture to selling ads.
It was his wife’s legal career that brought him to the Lowcountry 20 years ago, and he found a journalism career waiting for him here. As a reporter for the Island Packet, he covered everything from crime and courts to breaking news and county government.
In 2004, he was hired as a community relations manager at Hilton Head PSD, just as challenges to the island’s water supply were beginning to rise to the surface. Salt water intrusion into the aquifer was a hot topic, and all eyes were on PSD to see how it would handle it. It turned out, quite well.
We’re a utility that has to meet a pretty wide fluctuation in demand, from 6 million gallons a day in winter to a peak of 11-12 million a day in summer,”
“When you think about it, there are several different businesses that the PSD is operating – drinking water, wastewater collection and treatment, and recycled water. We’re producing drinking water, so we’re operating our own freshwater and brackish groundwater wells. The brackish groundwater is treated in our reverse osmosis water plant on Jenkins Island, and it’s the majority of our supply,” said Nardi. In addition to drinking water produced at the reverse osmosis plant, the PSD operates freshwater wells, and purchases treated drinking water from the mainland. The PSD’s aquifer storage and recovery facility stores 260 million gallons of treated water underground in the winter months when demand is low, then re-treats and withdraws it during peak demand in the summer months. That way, it can take advantage of the off-peak wholesale water rate.
And it is needed. “We’re a utility that has to meet a pretty wide fluctuation in demand, from 6 million gallons a day in winter to a peak of 11-12 million a day in summer,” he said. That wide swing in the summer is partly due to our many visitors, but a much bigger piece of that is the increased demand for irrigation.
That irrigation not only puts a strain on water sources, it adds pollutants to the watershed. “We’re seeing 40 to 60 percent of our treated drinking water being used primarily for residential irrigation here on the island,” Nardi said. “That’s a paradigm that we really want to start a conversation about changing. If we do it, we can help save our precious local water resources, stave off the need for costly capital projects to develop more water supply, and reduce the amount of chemicals running off of our landscapes and into local watersheds.”
And it’s here that Hilton Head PSD has shown some real ingenuity.
“The PSD is not just drinking water, it’s a wastewater treatment and recycled water utility,” he said. “What we’re doing with treated wastewater is pretty unique; we’re recycling it into golf course irrigation or into interior wetland habitats to help maintain those habitats. Not a lot of North American communities do it, but Hilton Head Island kind of pioneered that.”
The water recycling program stemmed from a similar program devised in the early days of The Sea Pines Resort, and one that Nardi says stacks up as an example to follow nationally.
“I get excited talking about our recycled water program because it’s unique. Many places in North America are putting their treated wastewater back into a surface water, like a river or lake. They want to move to the type of reuse program that Hilton Head Island has been doing for decades.”
Ellen Sturup Comeau
Managing the stormwater ponds of the Lowcountry
As a water resources agent for Clemson Extension, Ellen Sturup Comeau wears a lot of hats and spends a lot of time building a healthier future for our area’s waterways. But the most important thing she builds is constructed far away from our rivers, wetlands and marshes.
“I want to build bridges,” she said.
These bridges are built between her and communities around the Lowcountry that call on her expertise to help manage their stormwater ponds and other water-related issues. They are built between her and contractors to ensure that new buildings are crafted with an eye on preserving our waters. And they are built between her and anyone who will listen as she works tirelessly to educate Beaufort County residents about the unique responsibility they hold to the environment.
“As an extension agent, you basically do everything,” she said. “That means building educational programs and working with stakeholders – not just HOAs and homeowners, but also working with farmers, other educators, rural populations, and urban populations. Beaufort County is a wonderfully diverse place.”
As an extension agent, you basically do everything,”
At the top of her list are the management and inclusion of best practices for stormwater ponds. “What’s really interesting is that Beaufort County has thousands of ponds, but none of them is natural,” she said. “Most of these were built as stormwater ponds with a few historic ponds dug during the Colonial and Civil War eras for fishing and irrigation.”
These stormwater ponds collect runoff from rainwater, store it and filter it before it heads downstream to our rivers and waterways. “Stormwater is the number one threat to water quality,” said Sturup Comeau. She points to factors like bacteria, litter, excessive nutrients from landscaping and even the freshwater itself, which can disrupt salinity levels. “Beaufort County has half of the saltwater habitats in the entire state. It’s an incredibly unique and sensitive area.”
As a way of tackling these threats, Sturup Comeau fosters partnerships with several stakeholders, including the five local municipalities. From these partnerships, the Lowcountry Stormwater Partners consortium was formed. This consortium devised a five-year strategic plan for outreach that would increase awareness of, among other things, proper pet waste disposal, lawn fertilization, pond maintenance and best practices for reducing runoff.
And, of course, building more bridges.
“Building relationships is the biggest part. The more people who know I’m here, the more I can help,” she said. You can find more information about the Lowcountry Stormwater Partners and their plan on their website and Facebook page.
Water is a haven for this decorated swimmer
For some, the water is a valuable resource to be preserved. For others, it’s a playground where they can surf, fish and while away an afternoon.
For Sarah Reamy, water is a haven.
“It’s an escape, really,” she said. “Everything happening outside the water just gets separated. I love just going to the pool and doing what I love.”
What she loves is swimming. And among her peers, she’s one of the best. Senior team captain for the Queens University of Charlotte swim team where she was an All-American in the 1,000- and 1,650-yard freestyle, Reamy cut her teeth as a member of the Hilton Head Island High School team where she was a state champion. It’s a lifelong pursuit of excellence that began when she was just five years old.
“Swimming has made up so much of my life, I don’t remember what it’s not like to have that,” she said. “When I was younger, I did some other sports, ballet and soccer, but pretty young I decided swimming was what I loved the most and what I wanted to dedicate my time to. I’m a competitive person.”
Her freshman year at Queens University sealed that love of swimming when she and her team won the second of what is now a five-year streak of NCAA Division II championships.
Swimming has made up so much of my life, I don’t remember what it’s not like to have that,”
“That was the first time I’d really raced at that level. It was the most intense meet I’d been a part of,” she said.
Were it just the swimming, Reamy would have an impressive college resume. But having been a member of the National Honor Society and an IB graduate, that drive has kept her going through her studies toward a biology degree.
“There have been some really difficult semesters where I’ve been taking 20 credit hours on top of 20 hours a week training and traveling for competition, but I think swimming actually helped me,” she said. “I don’t have as many hours in the day but it doesn’t seem like it. Swimming has helped me stay on top of things.”
It’s a difficult lane to stay in, but that’s just how Reamy likes it. For her, the key is focusing on the love of swimming.
“It’s about the journey, not the destination,” she said. “You can put lot of pressure on yourself and make it about times or performance, but it’s really about the relationship with your coaches and teammates. During really hard practices where you didn’t think you’ll get through, you think of all the reasons you love swimming and the memories you’re making.”
(click on gallery thumbnail for larger photo)