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McMaster suggests $500M in virus money for water, sewer work

October 28, 2021 GMT
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about his plan to spend $500 million from COVID-19 federal relief money to improve and build new water systems in the state during a news conference on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2021, in Great Falls, S.C. The General Assembly will get the final say on how to spend the $2.4 billion in pandemic relief money. (Tracy Kimball/The Herald via AP)
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about his plan to spend $500 million from COVID-19 federal relief money to improve and build new water systems in the state during a news conference on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2021, in Great Falls, S.C. The General Assembly will get the final say on how to spend the $2.4 billion in pandemic relief money. (Tracy Kimball/The Herald via AP)
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about his plan to spend $500 million from COVID-19 federal relief money to improve and build new water systems in the state during a news conference on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2021, in Great Falls, S.C. The General Assembly will get the final say on how to spend the $2.4 billion in pandemic relief money. (Tracy Kimball/The Herald via AP)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s governor wants to put $500 million of federal COVID-19 relief money toward fixing and improving water systems across the state, with priority given to rural and smaller systems.

Gov. Henry McMaster announced his idea Thursday, saying a modern clean drinking water and sewer system is vital to both citizens and to bring in businesses.

“In rural South Carolina water and sewer is the key to life,” McMaster said at a news conference in Great Falls.

The $500 million is part of about $2.4 billion in pandemic relief money that the state can spend. The General Assembly will make the final decision on where the money goes.

Senate and House committees discussing the relief money have brought up the idea of water system building and repair, but with a big difference — requiring local systems to also put up money for the effort. The state has more than 260 water systems and 200 wastewater systems and their average age is approaching 50 years old, officials said.

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McMaster said a local match wasn’t in his plan. “Some of these communities just don’t have the money,” the governor said.

The proposal could revisit a growing breach in the Legislature between rural and urban lawmakers. For many decades, the state’s power was in rural areas, but while cities and urban areas grew considerably in the 2020 U.S. Census, the population everywhere else shrunk.

“There’s no way we can match dollar for dollar what the more populated areas of South Carolina can do for their citizens. We do not have the tax base,” said Republican Sen. Penry Gustafson, who represents parts of Chesterfield, Kershaw and Lancaster counties.

McMaster’s plan also calls for giving incentives for smaller water systems to join with larger systems. Those smaller systems were often created to help run mills that left decades ago.

The governor’s pandemic task force Accelerate SC recommended $400 million for water systems and $73 million for cybersecurity for the plants. McMaster said the cybersecurity money isn’t in his proposal.

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McMaster hasn’t released a formal plan to spend all of the pandemic relief money. But in the past two months McMaster held news conferences beside Interstate 26 to ask for $360 million to help jumpstart widening the highway to three lanes each direction from Charleston to Columbia and in Myrtle Beach to ask for $300 million to help pay for the first segment of long-discussed Interstate 73 to get a freeway connection between Interstate 95 to Myrtle Beach.

Again on Thursday, McMaster said the billions in federal COVID-19 relief provides a rare chance to improve infrastructure that could change the state for at least a generation.

Great Falls has a new whitewater rafting center and state park set for construction, but they need water and sewer, said state Sen. Mike Fanning, a Democrat who represents Chester County where the governor was speaking.

“We can’t do any of that if we have Porta Johns lining the place,” Fanning said.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.