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Columbia Business Monthly

Maintaining and Expanding Upstate Infrastructure : How Laurens County is Prepared for its Future

Apr 12, 2022 04:55PM ● By Jeff Field

Laurens County has long had a strong reputation for attracting industrial development. We are a large county located in the Upstate with two major interstates and an abundance of rail access. 

The county has a highly successful workforce development program through the Laurens County Development Corporation with support from the local school districts and Piedmont Technical College. 

Our cities, county council, and utilities are extremely pro-business and work collaboratively to attract new industry as well as to expand existing industries. These factors and others have led to a consistent level of job growth over many years. 

Couple this with our quality-of-life and the ongoing Southern migration, and it is no surprise Laurens County is beginning to realize substantial residential development.

Depending upon who you ask and where they live, you are sure to get a wide range of opinions about the growth that is occurring in most parts of the Upstate. You might hear the phrases “smart growth” or “balanced growth.”

Maybe you hear “too much, too fast.” It is all about perspective, and we need to recognize there is truth in everyone’s opinion. 

Regardless, most will agree we want our local businesses to grow and become successful, we need a larger workforce if we are to continue to attract business and industry to our region, and we need more affordable housing. In addition to these benefits, growth is allowing our smaller towns and communities that have struggled due to mill closures and population decline to be revitalized and return to prosperity. 

To prepare for growth, utilities must make decisions about infrastructure improvements knowing that population demand projections and revenue forecasting are moving targets. It is an ongoing evaluation that requires flexibility in the planning process.  Once infrastructure investments are made, utilities must then work proactively to ensure there is a return on those investments. If not, it might lead to unnecessary rate increases that are better reserved for cost-of-service increases such as labor and materials. 

As the water and sewer provider for the unincorporated areas of Laurens County and a small area of southern Greenville County, the Laurens County Water and Sewer Commission (LCWSC) is tasked with providing services in a large area with a varying population density. 

Some areas have very few houses, while other areas are developed with large, densely populated subdivisions that have planned outdoor amenities that appeal to today’s home buyer. LCWSC must balance its financial resources between expanding its system to serve a growing population and maintaining its system to ensure continuous service to its existing customers.

As with any water utility, you must have confidence in your raw water source and in your ability to produce enough water to sustain the long-term demand of your service area because this is the foundation on which all other planning decisions are made. To ensure our foundation is strong, LCWSC recently completed a $29 million state-of-the-art water treatment facility, supplied by water from Lake Greenwood.  

The Lake Greenwood Water Treatment Facility can treat three times our current water demand and if expanded, nine times our current water demand. Prior to constructing this facility, it was not possible for our county to access two of the largest, most resilient water sources in Laurens County, the Saluda and Reedy Rivers, both of which are the main tributaries to Lake Greenwood.  

To distribute water from the new facility, the LCWSC also constructed $19 million in water distribution improvements. These improvements included over 30 miles of water lines, three booster pump stations, and a 500,000-gallon elevated storage tank. Collectively, both projects represent the largest one-time investment in infrastructure over our 50-year history. 

To complete this large investment in infrastructure, LCWSC was strategic in how it funded such an important project. Our board decided years ago to adopt a capacity fee structure and a long-term rate plan to generate funds over multiple years allowing the LCWSC to bank excess revenue so it could be applied toward these projects. 

Remaining funds came from multiple grant agencies and long-term bonds issued at historically low rates. All of this was done to minimize the burden to our existing customers and eliminate the need for a one-time large rate increase once the treatment facility came online.

Water has long been a priority for the LCWSC, ever since the early 1970s when the people of rural Laurens County came together to create our organization. Though sewer was equally important at the time, it was designated for our industrial corridors or areas near our city centers where there was more commercial development and denser housing, places where septic tanks were not feasible.

It wasn’t cost-effective to extend sewer beyond these areas as there was no demand in rural parts of the county.

Fast forward to today, and the situation is much different. The LCWSC has made substantial investments in its water system, investments that were made to serve growth, and the LCWSC must now make sewer a higher priority in its planning effort moving forward to complement those water investments. 

Fortunately, there is sewer capacity to serve the current demands, but making prudent investments in sewer infrastructure over the next 10 to 15 years will be required for LCWSC to accommodate a growing population.  

To that end, our recently updated 20-year capital improvement plan (CIP) includes $62 million in sewer system improvements, including a new sewer treatment facility. By comparison, the previous 20-year capital improvements plan that was approved just 10 years ago, only had $12 million in sewer improvements.

Outside this CIP, the LCWSC is working with the town of Gray Court to install public sewer in their downtown area and on a commercial corridor along South Carolina Highway 101. The town currently does not have public sewer service, and the improvements will allow them to attract restaurants and other businesses that can’t operate on septic systems. 

LCWSC also partners with other sewer service providers in Laurens County to find ways to cost-effectively expand service. LCWSC is in discussions with the city of Laurens CPW to look for ways we can partner and provide sewer service in areas that may develop adjacent to the city of Laurens.

LCWSC supports the city of Clinton with sewer treatment services, working closely with them on development projects and their long-term sewer needs. This collaboration allows the LCWSC to plan expansions at our sewer treatment facility southeast of Clinton to ensure capacity is available in this part of the county. 

In the northern part of Laurens County, where a considerable number of residential and industrial developments are occurring, LCWSC is working with ReWa as they develop plans to extend a sizable sewer trunkline into Laurens County. This will enable LCWSC to install sewer collection lines from this trunk line to serve large undeveloped areas between Fountain Inn and Gray Court.

The LCWSC works tirelessly to position itself to serve Laurens County both now and into the future. We are continuously making investments in our system to meet our commitment to our existing customers, to serve industrial and business development and to sustain the long-term demand of a growing County. 

We do not take this responsibility lightly. We also recognize this is a shared responsibility and an effort that cannot be done in a vacuum. 

There is a lot of excellent work and planning that takes place at other utilities, cities, county council, school districts, healthcare providers, etc. We must continue to work together and coordinate our efforts to be remotely successful. When we do that, we will never lose sight of our most valuable infrastructure – the people we serve. 

Jeff Field is executive director of Laurens County Water and Sewer Commission.