Opinion: Santee Cooper Lakes are an asset we must consider keeping protected


The South Carolina Public Service Authority, more commonly known as Santee Cooper, is a state agency created by an act of the S.C. General Assembly in the 1930s to provide electrification to rural South Carolina. To generate that hydroelectric power, water was required, and the solution was the creation of Lakes Marion and Moultrie.

These lakes were formed out of farmland, lowland and swamps. They are special bodies of water that leverage an extensive system of dikes and dams. They cover some deep water and, in many cases, relatively shallow water still containing stumps, historical cemeteries, homesteads and other obstacles.

The lakes' design and location mean there is both wildlife and flora unique to the region that must be managed. It is not an easy task, and given the distinct characteristics of these waters, it is one that demands unique expertise, experience and commitment.

The Santee Cooper Country Promotion Commission is concerned that if Santee Cooper is sold to a private enterprise, whose mission is understandably and justifiably motivated by profit to shareholders, then the oversight, management and protection of these unique lakes and the associated 450 miles of shoreline will change. The Santee Public Service Authority performs this mission now as a public entity, balancing all interests and at cost with no profit motivation.

Suggestions that lake management will not change because it is driven by federal government regulations through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is simply incorrect. FERC regulation covers very minimal restrictions, while Santee Cooper has a long history of going well beyond the minimum in its oversight and care of these precious resources. Those of us who are tasked with promotion of the lakes are concerned about the overall impact on economic development, tourism, recreation, job creation and protection. To say "nothing will change" is to ignore the basics of the corporate model.

Many of us grew up on these waters, caught our first fish, learned to drive a boat or water ski. We spent precious time with family and friends. We created lasting memories and lifelong bonds.

If we want to ensure the same for our children and grandchildren, we must make sure that the trustees of these waters appreciate and understand how important they are to our communities, our people and our state, not only financially, but socially and culturally as well.

We just are not confident an entity based in New York, Florida, North Carolina or Virginia will fully embrace that the Santee Cooper Lakes are not just some minimal challenge associated with making a profit that comes with purchasing an electric grid. It is a significant responsibility and must be a major part of any decision to sell these valuable assets.

Tourism as we know it may take a hit under new management. Over the years, the Santee Cooper Lakes have become a tourism magnet for the angler, hunter, water enthusiast and other outdoor recreationists. There are beaches both public and quasi-public and 21 public access landings. There's support for wildlife habitat and plant management as well as the 26-mile Lake Moultrie passage, the 20-mile Eutaw Springs Passage and the 33-mile Lake Marion Passage of the Palmetto Trail.

Santee Cooper tourism-related employment totaled 3,620 jobs with an annual payroll of $72 million in 2017, while state and local tax receipts totaled $44 million. That same year, according to a study released by the South Carolina Department of PRT, tourism brought in $434 million to the "Santee Cooper Country" counties (Berkeley, Calhoun, Clarendon, Orangeburg and Sumter). That's an important number in communities with high unemployment and limited jobs.

There are also important stewardship and protection programs that deal with mosquitoes, analyze water samples from 48 stations and address numerous water-quality issues. Now, more and more South Carolinians are also getting the water they use in their homes and businesses from the Santee Cooper Lakes.

All of this is overseen, managed and protected by the knowledgeable, experienced and dedicated employees of Santee Cooper. Will an investor-owned utility that is profit-driven and answers to shareholders allocate the same attention, resources and protection to our lakes like Santee Cooper? Will they simply follow FERC? Will the complexion of the lakes change? They may say it will all be the same today, but unfortunately, we might not know the truth until it is too late. It's a risk at best and a gamble at worst.

Our role as a commission is not only to advertise and promote these lakes, but also to provide information and guidance on behalf of the thousands of citizens who enjoy them daily.

While Santee Cooper very clearly has well-documented challenges, with its new seasoned expertise at the helm, we at the Santee Cooper Country Promotion Commission think that Santee Cooper Public Service Authority is positioned to continue as the best option for the management of the Santee Cooper Lakes and water systems.