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The sewer connection: Hilton Head's relationship with wastewater reveals its history | Hilton Head - Energy And Water Development Corp

The sewer connection: Hilton Head’s relationship with wastewater reveals its history | Hilton Head

HILTON HEAD ISLAND — When local governments received American Rescue Plan Act funds from the federal government this year, some places around South Carolina funneled it into roads, tax relief, and housing. Hilton Head bought sewer connections.

Specifically, the town allocated $200,000 to help renters and landowners connect to the public sewer system. The program builds on a multi-million dollar fund to transition low-income residents off septic tanks. 

The effort stems from public health and environmental concerns: Failing septic systems can introduce dangerous viruses and pathogens into the groundwater.

Getting more people hooked up to sewer could also address two of the town’s top challenges: the loss of Gullah-owned property, and the need for affordable housing.  

To understand the present-day connection between wastewater and real estate, one needs to go back in time. Way back.

 ‘A giant sand dune’

Hilton Head soil.jpg

Hilton Head’s coastlines have migrated westward and eastward in the last 3 million years. Its soil contains the remnants of old sand dunes, as well as marshland. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by John Margolies

Three million years ago, seawater repeatedly submerged areas of Hilton Head, said Stephen Borgianini, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Its lower-lying beaches looked more like marshes.

More recently — 18,000 years ago, to Borgianini — the sea level rose and the coastline migrated, moving the ocean floor onto shore.

“Just remember, this island is really a giant sand dune,” he said. 

As a result of its history, Hilton Head’s soil is a mix of fine sand, clay and silt. 

Where sewage is concerned, that’s a bad combination. 

The Goldilocks zone

Disposing of wastewater demands a delicate balance. Too much time underground and it doesn’t break down. Not enough time underground and it doesn’t break down either. 

Instead, it requires what Borginanini calls “the Goldilocks zone.” That’s the optimal period of contact with bacteria and fungi, microorganisms that clean wastewater before it reaches the top of the water table.

But in Hilton Head’s sandiest soil, wastewater moves too quickly. In worst-case scenarios, sewage can reach plant roots and run into tidal creeks. 

In other parts of the island, where clay and silt resist the flow of moisture, wastewater drains too slowly. Here, septic systems are nearly certain to fail. 

Hilton Head Civil War.jpg

Commissary Headquarters on Hilton Head, April 1862. Library of Congress/Provided

Still, people living here before the mid-20th century didn’t have many options. They couldn’t send their sewage off the island; they had to use on-site systems, such as cesspools or, eventually, septic tanks. 

The arrangement wasn’t ideal, but it made sense. Said Borgianini: “That was the way we did business in the Lowcountry for at least 100 years.”

An early start

In 1957, business changed. That year, Charles Fraser began creating a meticulously planned resort community on the island’s south end, where soft beaches contained the ancient silt and clay trapped by long-ago marsh grasses.

Sea Pines historic image.jpg

When he was developing Sea Pines, pictured here, Charles Fraser put in the hardware to collect wastewater from homes. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by John Margolies

To encourage growth, developers like Fraser included plans to collect future inhabitants’ wastewater. A private firm installed water lines, and the state created a public service district for part of the island.

By the late 1960s, a number of home buyers, especially those in resort areas, could enjoy potable water straight from the tap, and flush their toilets into a new sewer system.

Compared with other parts of the country, Hilton Head’s sanitary waste infrastructure looked ahead of the curve. 

“They got an early start, which a lot of places didn’t,” Borgianini said. 

The Deep Well Project

Charlotte Heinrichs Hilton Head

Charlotte Heinrichs founded the Deep Well Project to improve Hilton Head residents’ access to clean water. Deep Well Project/Provided

But older households used older methods. 

Around 1968, a public health nurse who had retired to Hilton Head noticed how often her neighbors fell ill, especially native islanders. To Charlotte Heinrichs, their symptoms looked consistent with intestinal parasites — the kind that come from contaminated drinking water.

Sure enough, if an afternoon thunderstorm flooded the ground or king tides washed over the beach, wastewater from cesspools or septic tanks seeped into residents’ shallow, hand-dug wells.

Heinrichs founded the Deep Well Project in 1973 as a straightforward solution to the problem: dig further underground for clean water. 

In the decades since, the nonprofit’s name seems more figurative than literal, since the well-known organization now seeks to provide for all kinds of basic needs, from food, to rent, to school uniforms.

But in its charter, the Deep Well Project had a focus as narrow and precise as the holes it drilled. 

Dirty little secret

Intestinal parasites are “kind of Hilton Head’s dirty little secret,” said Sandy Gillis, executive director of the Deep Well Project. 

Still, when the town incorporated in 1983, voters declined to make their tax dollars or local officials responsible for water and sewer. By then, a majority wanted to control development, not encourage it; as a result, they conceived of a “limited services government.” 

That meant more than half a dozen utility companies dealt with wastewater. Households outside those networks retained their on-site systems. They sometimes worked, but often didn’t.

“Can you imagine if they had to shut down swimming at Coligny Beach because there was a sewage spill?” Gillis said, by way of explaining why, in the early 1990s or so, businesses quietly began to take an interest in individuals’ wastewater solutions.

“You think about all the shrimping and the oysters that come out of the May River,” Gillis said. “I mean, people are eating the fish out of there.” 

Sewer access for everyone

Sewer systems are not just pipes. They’re laws and money, labor and, in some cases, persuasion.

“Back then, people were or weren’t having a problem,” said Pete Nardi, the general manager of Hilton Head Public Service District, which acquired a handful of utilities in 1995. “A lot of people don’t necessarily want an expense if they’re not having a problem.”

Still, local leaders perceived the business, environmental and public health incentives to get everyone on sewer. In 2004, they created a plan to extend sewer service throughout the island and a fund to help low-income residents connect to it.

Marshland gravity sewer.JPG

A sewer is installed in the Marshland neighborhood of Hilton Head as part of Project SAFE in 2017-18. Community Foundation of the Lowcountry/Provided 

The town kicked in $10 million, Nardi’s public service district $3 million and philanthropic donors through the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry another $3 million.

In a pleasing historical echo, the Deep Well Project handled applications for the program, called Project SAFE — Sewer Access for Everyone. 

Over the past nearly 20 years, Gillis said she saw a pattern. The sewer line would come down a road, and the public service district would put a notice on everyone’s door: The line is there, you can hook in now.

“There would be a flurry of activity,” Gillis said. “And then when they would complete another area, there would be another flurry of activity.”

But in recent months, the activity slowed to a trickle. 

“The analogy I use is, it’s like when you have a refrigerator,” Gillis said. “Even though there’s a really cool whiz bang refrigerator that has water on the door and Kool-Aid ice options, you’re probably not going to go buy a new refrigerator until your current refrigerator craps out.” 


In town meetings this spring, the topic of sewers rarely came up. After all, the vast majority of residents are now connected. Only about 800 households use septic; they are mostly in the historic Gullah neighborhoods, or in the earliest subdivisions of Fraser’s Sea Pines development. 

Instead, officials and residents worried over the lack of affordable housing, and the loss of Gullah culture as native families are forced to give up their land.

Alex Brown, a Town Council member who represents several native island neighborhoods, said, “We’ve lost a lot of property because folks just can’t afford to pay their taxes. It goes to the tax sale, and it’s gone at that point.”

Sewers connect the town’s two present-day preoccupations.

If landholders could rent a vacant lot or an unused part of their property, they could both create a home for someone else and generate enough income to pay the tax bill. For islanders who are property-rich but cash-poor, rental units could “lead to people having a piece of property that’s working for them versus working against them,” Brown said.

But setting up rental units — likely in the form of mobile homes — is prohibitively expensive. Among other things, it requires water and sewer connections. (State rules prohibit installing or repairing a septic system if public sewer services are available.)

Gillis has seen the cost of a sewer connection fee as low as $4,000 and as high as $13,000. 

Brown estimated $7,000, a number that could make a tenant’s monthly rent unaffordable. “Although you may call yourself a good landlord, when you get that type of hit, you’re gonna pass it on to the tenant, right?” he said. 

With this calculus in mind, town officials again turned their attention to offsetting the cost of sewer connections. 

Chipping away

Compared with Project SAFE, the town’s new grant program broadens the categories of people who qualify. Renters are eligible; heirs whose names are not on the property deed are eligible; residents who make up to 100 percent of the area’s median income are eligible. 

“Project SAFE tackled so much of the low-hanging fruit,” Nardi said. “Now I think the town is after some of the higher-hanging fruit.”

Since July 1, two residents have qualified for the town’s sewer connection program; a third has requested four applications, presumably to create rental units. 

Brown acknowledged that the town needs to put hundreds of units on the ground at a time, “but even one unit is chipping away at the problem,” he said.

He praised the sewer connection program as a good use of ARPA funds, as did Nardi and Gillis. 

But Brown also noted that the town is not drawing on a legacy of trust from native islanders. Historically, “the opportunity to connect the town with the Gullah community has just not been there, OK?” Brown said. “It’s just not been in existence.”

Town officials might be wary, then, of touting a program that could make native islanders’ property more attractive to outside buyers. They might also be cautious of appearing that they are improving homeowner’s property with government money.

As they promote universal sewer use, they try to stay in the Goldilocks zone, emphasizing the safety and reliability of sewers, as well as the public benefits of what is ultimately a very personal matter. 

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