In the Community
Household ConnectionsJanuary 22, 2017
Betty Days sits on her front porch and remembers when her septic system used to signal it was time for one of its frequent pump outs.
“Our toilets would back up into the house. We’d have to slow down our water usage. We couldn’t do wash. We’d have to call and get it pumped out,” she says. “It was a constant cycle.” And it was expensive.
Days is one of many Native Islanders who has watched Hilton Head Island develop into a world-class resort, all the while fighting for some of the basic services most of us take for granted. “It was particularly stressful when my children were small. It just wasn’t healthy.”
Days and her neighbors are now connected to the public sewer system, thanks to grants from the Community Foundation’s Project SAFE Fund. When she heard about the grants several years ago, she went door-to-door in her neighborhood to explain the application process. She says all her neighbors are now connected to public sewer and they no longer have to deal with the problems associated with septic systems.
Those problems don’t affect only those with septic systems. According to Dr. Stephen Borgianini, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at University of South Carolina Beaufort, we allfeel the impact of faulty septic systems. “If a system fails on one property, it migrates and impacts adjacent homeowners. Through various routes it finds its way to the very environmentally-sensitive surface water and contaminates it,” he says. “Once contaminants reach the waterway, there’s no limit to where they can travel.” He says this spread of contaminants exposes individuals to pathogens and degrades the environment. “So the collective population and the environment are impacted.”
Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett feels we have a moral obligation to solve the problem. “If we’re going to claim a legacy of environmental stewardship, it’s inconceivable to me that we can let this problem persist,” he says. Public sewer access claimed a top spot in Bennett’s mayoral campaign platform. “It was a sign of marginalization of some of our longest-standing citizens and I wasn’t willing to accept that.”
The issue of public sewer access isn’t a new one. Community Foundation of the Lowcountry established the Project SAFE (Sewer Access for Everyone) fund back in 2000. Hilton Head Public Service District (PSD) recognized the need to help residents connect to public sewer and established a round-up program in 2006, with money raised going into the Project SAFE Fund.
Pete Nardi, general manager for Hilton Head PSD, agrees that the effects of this project are of critical importance. “About $800,000 has been donated to Project SAFE since 2001, which has helped more than 400 families connect to sewer. We’re proud that over $238,000 was raised by the PSD’s round-up program, showing that our customers also understand the need and support this project.”
But now, through the Community Foundation’s efforts, Hilton Head Island Town Council voted to allocate $5.8 million for sewer line installation and PSD has earmarked $3.5 million for pump stations and project management costs. The only thing missing is money to fund grants for low-income households to connect their homes to the main lines. Those connections can run as high $13,000 each.
That’s what the Community Foundation is working on. “The Community Foundation and PSD have been working together to connect qualified homeowners to public sewer since 2006,” Jim Allhusen, Community Foundation board member and chair of the Project SAFE Committee says. “But we still have hundreds of homes to connect. Our goal is to get all qualified homeowners connected by 2020. That’s why we’ve launched a capital campaign – the first in our history – called Connect for Good. Working together with the Town of Hilton Head Island and PSD, we can do it. But only if the community supports our efforts.”
Connect for Good aims to raise $3 million over the next several years. The Community Foundation has taken the first step in reaching this goal. In March, the Community Foundation board of directors voted to grant $500,000 toward the effort.
“We believe in putting our money where our mouth is,” Allhusen says. “Project SAFE is one of the most important initiatives Hilton Head Island has seen and it’s one of the most important initiatives the Community Foundation has undertaken. We are committed to supporting it, not only by acting as fiscal agent for grants, screening applicants for eligibility and raising $3 million, but by contributing to the $3 million fundraising goal. We hope the community will get behind this effort, because it affects us all.”
Betty Days says having access to public sewer is a blessing. “We’re so grateful there are people concerned about those of us affected by this. They’re helping us to live a more comfortable life.”