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The Hidden Infrastructure: Water & Sewer

November 30, 2016

The Hidden Infrastructure: Water & Sewer 

Hidden beneath our roads, rail, office and industrial space, there’s another crucial part of infrastructure: water and sewer. When you think about it, no business can exist without clean water and sanitation for workers. When water is an integral part of the core business, such as with manufacturing in the Upstate, it becomes even more important.  
Investments in our water-sewer infrastructure yield large payoffs. Spartanburg Water, for instance, has found that every dollar spent on water yields $12 of economic development investment. It’s nearly double for sewer spending: $1 spent on sewer yields $23 of direct economic investment. The agency makes economic development part of its focus, working closely with the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce Economic Futures Group to understand and help meet economic development goals.    
In fact, water and sewer are such critical elements of economic development the South Carolina Secretary of Commerce serves as the chairman of the South Carolina Rural Infrastructure Authority (RIA), which assists in financing qualified municipal infrastructure projects statewide by improving environmental facilities that will meet public health and environmental standards or aiding in the development of trade, commerce, industry, agriculture and employment opportunities. In 2016, the RIA awarded more than $3.2 million in water and sewer grants to Upstate communities.


Liquid Assets 

We have an abundance of water in the Upstate, which means a bounty of opportunity for water-intensive industries. Water has been integral to business growth in the Upstate since the beginning, when our waterfalls powered the textile industry, earning the reputation as the Textile Capital of the World.  
Today’s water-intensive industries span several sectors. All forms of manufacturing rely heavily on water in their production processes, and advances in manufacturing technology increasingly focus on more efficient water use, as well as reducing environmental impacts. The technology sector also depends on water, especially for the booming data center business spurred by cloud technologies, and the microprocessors that power everything from phones to smart homes.
So why does the Upstate have so much accessible water? It boils down to geography, and that fact that an average of 50 inches of rain falls each year to replenish resources over the long term, even if occasional drought periods temporarily affect some parts of the Upstate. This is great news for the Upstate as we drive the growth of bioscience, advanced materials, aerospace and automotive sectors. Recently, we’ve seen an increase in interest by food processing companies, and water is vital to those industries as well.
The Upstate’s ample water supply makes us a strong location for companies who may want proximity to major markets in the Southeast. While our neighboring state of Georgia is embroiled in a years-long conflict with Florida and Alabama over water rights, we have the ability to meet water demands and are in close proximity to those states.
The Upstate agencies that shepherd our water and sewer infrastructure, such as Greenville Water, are keenly aware of their key role in economic development. Their work is guided in part by the understanding that companies and site selectors won’t wait for the appropriate infrastructure: it needs to be ready when they are ready. As a result, those agencies are always looking and working decades ahead.

Flowing Toward the Future

In a way, sewer and water agencies must be able to see into the future. Local agencies say they plan anywhere from 50 to 75 years out, anticipating growth and changing needs. Even though water and sewer are perhaps the least visible aspects of business, they are some of the first attributes companies consider. Spartanburg Water plans about 30 years in advance for permits. The agency can anticipate abundant water capacity at least 75 years, and possibly longer as businesses become more efficient in their water use.  
Spartanburg water was recently named a Utility of the Future Today by a collaboration of national water groups and the U.S. Environmental protection agency. It was one of just 61 agencies worldwide to earn the recognition for innovative and sustainable utility management practices.  
These days Spartanburg is looking forward to infill development, including legacy properties that are being repurposed. Spartanburg water is working on line extensions to the northern part of the country and water quality improvements.

Royal Treatment 

The other side of our plentiful water is the treatment needed to keep it clean and safe. Treatment facilities are often located away from populated areas, but they impact growth in booming parts of the Upstate. Agencies need to be sure there is enough sewer line for a potential business or subdivision, which might require enhancing existing line or adding more. 
Renewable Water Resources (ReWa), which manages Greenville’s waste water treatment, is currently working with planning agencies in the area to update to its 20-year plan. The agency is also responsible for making sure waterways like the iconic Reedy River Falls are clean and safe for people to enjoy. Small urban waterways have especially high treatment standards, having less margin for error and large impacts on things like downstream reservoirs.  
Planning typically happens 20 years in advance, and ReWa expects to spend between $700 million and $1 billion in infrastructure improvements and upgrades over next two decades. A significant project planned is a 1.24-mile tunnel 100 feet underground that will transport wastewater in anticipation of growth in the City of Greenville’s business district and Northern Greenville County. The project will cost $50 million.  
These sorts of issues and developments are rarely at the forefront of business discussion, even when the topic is infrastructure. But it’s as clear as the water itself that our solid water-sewer infrastructure is critical to existing and future business. It’s all around us, whether we see it or not.
Want to learn even more about water? See “How Water Works” on the Greenville Water website.