Project SAFE: Sewer Access for Everyone

It is safe to say that one of my most important priorities as mayor is to provide sanitary sewer to every citizen on our island.

I have two key reasons:

  1. A universal and safe sewer system across our island is the best protection for our sensitive environment — especially our critical tidal creeks and ground water resources.
  2. It is the right thing to do. Our native islander population has been waiting through three decades of promises by various Town Councils and staff that the Town will ensure access to sanitary sewer to all residents.

From recent conversations around Hilton Head Island, I know most residents are in agreement on this subject. We cannot legitimately claim to live in a world class community while we continue to shamelessly marginalize many of our longest standing native island citizens by not providing them with access to sanitary sewer.

Providing sanitary sewer access to all island residents has been a Town Council since the late 1980s. Our second town mayor, Martha Baumberger, was a major proponent. She advocated universal sewer because she was greatly concerned the combination of widespread septic tank usage at that time combined with our high water table on Hilton Head was both a threat to the island’s waterways and a health hazard to many residents.

In 2004 our town adopted a Comprehensive Plan which specifically identified the critical need to provide sewer service to all areas of the island at an affordable price to users, and to extend the service to “un-served portions” of the island. The objective was then, as it is now, to protect critical tidal creeks from potential septic system failures.

Fast forward another 11 years and we are still not there despite meaningful progress made by the Hilton Head Public Service District, which serves our north end. Unfortunate foot dragging has kept the job from being completed, but I intend to make every effort to not let that happen during my tenure as mayor. I believe financial resources to get this task accomplished can be attained – even without raising taxes. We only need to make the effort, create the plan, and show the will to do it.

What remains are approximately 900 properties mostly on the north part of the island in Ward One. Some of the properties support a single household, but in many cases several families live on a single parcel.
This continues to be a public hazard. The island’s high water table complicates the problem, especially during periods of excessive rain. Where homes and trailers in low-income areas are clustered together septic systems frequently overflow. Maintenance is often neglected, and there is no governing body that specifically oversees the problem.

Failed septic systems are of concern because human sewage is loaded with pathogens that threaten the health of people who come in contact with contaminated matter. Contaminants also flow with the water as it moves on top of the ground or underground to our creeks and streams. It is a serious and under-appreciated problem.

Moreover, as the pathogens and other pollutants get into local waters they negatively impact fish — especially shellfish. Local oysters filter all their food from our waterways. If they become polluted oystering must stop.

The estimated cost to provide sewer service to the remaining properties on the island is $6 million. We need to earmark money from the General Fund and other outside sources to get the main lines to the areas that are still under-served. That task is achievable in five years. As new sewer mains are installed, the secondary task becomes connecting the individual residences to those mains.

Project SAFE (Sewer Access for Everyone) is a charitable fund of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry. The fund provides grants to low- to moderate-income property owners to assist them in connecting to the public sewer system once it reaches their street. Full or partial grants are awarded based on an applicant’s income.

Since 2001 Project SAFE has helped more than 150 families connect to sewer with $350,000 in assistance, but as the new lines and pump stations are installed to additional streets and roadways, many more low-income and elderly residents will need assistance.

That’s where you can help. Project SAFE is supported in part by the Hilton Head Public Service District’s “Round-Up” program. Broad Creek Public Service District also supports Project SAFE through its “Buck For A Better Island” program. Both programs are voluntary, and if you sign up your monthly bill from the PSD will be rounded up to the next dollar, with the rounded up portion of your payment going to Project SAFE. But Project SAFE is also supported by private donations. It is an issue that affects our entire community, so I encourage you to call the Foundation directly (843) 681-9100 or visit their website (www.CF-Lowcountry.org) to donate online. Follow the prompts to donate directly online and select “Project SAFE Fund” from the drop-down menu.

Let’s work together to achieve this notable goal. It is well-worth the effort.

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