In Hilton Head, One Foundation Is Working to Provide Public Sewer to Homes

Thursday, June 1, 2017 - 2:30 pm EDT
Denise Spencer

Editor’s Note: This blog post spotlights Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, which was one of 10 recipients of the 2017 HUD Secretary’s Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships. The awards are a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Council on Foundations and honor 10 innovative and impactful cross-sector initiatives that have increased the quality of life for low- and moderate-income Americans living in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the nation.




A rainy day is simply a minor inconvenience for most of us. But for some residents of Hilton Head Island, S.C., a heavy rain may mean they can’t do their laundry, their kids can’t play in the yard, or they’ll find raw sewage bubbling up through drains in their bathtubs and sinks. Many of these residents, primarily low-income native islanders, live in homes lacking access to public sewer. They rely instead on septic systems.

Due to a high water table, poor soil quality, and a dense root system, septic systems face a short lifespan on Hilton Head Island. Vulnerable to overflow and failure, septic systems require frequent maintenance—something low-income families can rarely afford.

But it’s not just these families who are affected. After heavy rains, sewage and wastewater seep into yards, eventually draining into waterways and befouling the Lowcountry’s delicate ecosystem. Children have experienced health problems from playing in sewage-sodden backyards. And, as tourists and bicyclists traverse our nearly 60 miles of bike and walking paths, they can literally smell a problem brewing.

Most of these visitors, and even many residents, are unaware that the families who’ve lived on Hilton Head Island longer than anyone—descendants of former slaves who settled here during and after the Civil War—have been promised repeatedly that public sewer will be made available.

Previous efforts to make good on these promises have been a series of fits and starts. In 2000, Community Foundation of the Lowcountry established the Project SAFE (Sewer Access for Everyone) Fund to provide grants to help low-income families connect to public sewer in areas where main sewer lines had been laid. In 2004 the Hilton Head Public Service District (PSD) embarked upon a long-range program to lay lines in unserved areas. That effort has since resulted in more than 95 percent of the PSD’s service area now having sewer access. However, hundreds of homes still remain unconnected due to the cost of the hook up, which averages about $6,700 per household.

The 2014 Hilton Head Island mayoral race resulted in the election of a candidate whose platform included the completion of public sewer in unserved areas. With the essential players now in place, a public-philanthropic partnership between the Town of Hilton Head Island, PSD, and Community Foundation of the Lowcountry is finally tackling this long-standing issue, once and for all.

To date, the Town has allocated over $10 million to the project. PSD is laying sewer mains and has expanded a sewer treatment plant that will accommodate the volume needed when all septic systems are eliminated. Community Foundation of the Lowcountry has launched a multi-year campaign to raise the $3 million needed to provide grants for qualifying families to connect.

Our hope is that by the year 2020, every home on Hilton Head Island will have access to public sewer and that all qualified households are connected. And this public-philanthropic partnership means we’re well on our way to ensuring that long-ago promises are finally kept.   

About the Author

Denise K. Spencer has served as President and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry (Hilton Head Island, SC) since August of 2006, after serving for over 12 years as the President/CEO for a community foundation in mid-Michigan. Prior to that role, she worked almost 20 years as an administrator and academic advisor for Central Michigan University, where she also did both her undergraduate and graduate work. Since her arrival, the Community Foundation has undertaken several new strategic efforts, streamlined its governance structure, embarked upon a $3 million public/philanthropic partnership to provide sewer connections for low-income individuals, led a recovery and rebuilding effort following Hurricane Matthew, grown to up to $63 million in assets, and proudly saw the Foundation surpass $60 million in giving since its birth in 1994. Within the Council on Foundations, she has served as a community foundation Standards Peer Reviewer as part of a nationwide initiative of standards compliance in the field.

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