Mega-farms face crack­down af­ter DHEC vote

The State - - Local - BY SAMMY FRETWELL sfretwell@thes­tate.com

Reg­u­la­tors agreed Thurs­day to crack down on mega-farms whose thirst for wa­ter is cre­at­ing prob­lems in a seven-county re­gion of South Carolina that also needs the wa­ter for drink­ing.

The board of the S.C. De­part­ment of Health and En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­trol voted unan­i­mously to re­quire mega-farms, big in­dus­tries and other ma­jor wa­ter users to get state per­mis­sion be­fore with­draw­ing large amounts of ground­wa­ter in the seven coun­ties.

Un­like many parts of eastern South Carolina, there now are no lim­its on how much ground­wa­ter can be with­drawn in the heav­ily agri­cul­tural area. The new rules, re­quir­ing state ap­proval, would ap­ply to any ma­jor wa­ter user. But big farm­ing op­er­a­tions are a key rea­son that ground­wa­ter lev­els are de­clin­ing from the Ge­or­gia line to Lex­ing­ton, ac­cord­ing to DHEC.

The DHEC board’s de­ci­sion is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause it will help pro­tect ground­wa­ter from unchecked with­drawals in an area with an in­creas­ing need for wa­ter, sup­port­ers of the rules said.

Big farms are mov­ing into South Carolina, as are in­dus­tries. Both need wa­ter. But so do es­tab­lished farms, long-time home­own­ers, ex­ist­ing busi­nesses and util­i­ties. DHEC’s ac­tion is in­tended to make sure those need­ing wa­ter don’t take too much at the ex­pense of oth­ers.

“Pop­u­la­tions are in­creas­ing, ir­ri­gated acres are in­creas­ing,’’’ DHEC ground­wa­ter spe­cial­ist Alex But­ler told the board. “We have a lot more de­mands on the wa­ter, and we don’t ex­pect that to stop.’’

The rules, rec­om­mended by DHEC staff 18 months ago, fol­lowed The State’s se­ries on mega-farms. Those rules would re­quire DHEC to re­view wa­ter­with­drawal plans and is­sue per­mits to any­one want­ing to siphon large amounts of ground­wa­ter.

The rules won’t take ef­fect for months but, even­tu­ally, would ex­pand state over­sight of ma­jor wa­ter with­drawals in the area from Aiken to Lex­ing­ton. Many ex­ist­ing users are ex­pected to re­ceive per­mits for the amount of wa­ter they now use, DHEC of­fi­cials said.

“We be­lieve this is the best way to man­age the ground­wa­ter re­sources in that area for the long term,’’ DHEC board chair- man Mark Elam said in a state­ment.

Un­der­ground wa­ter lev­els have dropped from 5 feet to 15 feet in the area in re­cent years, ac­cord­ing to DHEC. Dur­ing the sum­mer, when big farms ir­ri­gate heav­ily, wa­ter lev­els tem­po­rar­ily have dropped up to 40 feet in some places, DHEC’s But­ler said.

Sup­port­ers of the rules, in­clud­ing the state’s largest en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and res­i­dents who live near mega-farms, urged DHEC’s board to take ac­tion be­fore ground­wa­ter lev­els drop any more.

The area that would fall un­der the new re­stric­tions in­cludes Orange­burg, Cal­houn, Al­len­dale, Bam­berg and Barn­well coun­ties. And the plan drew sup­port from com­mu­ni­ties in the Edisto River basin, which have ex­pressed frus­tra­tion with in­dus­tri­alscale agri­cul­tural op­er­a­tions.

Of the 76 pub­lic com­ments DHEC re­ceived be­fore Thurs­day’s vote, all but two en­dorsed the new rules. The S.C. Farm Bu­reau, and the Pal­metto Agribusi­ness Coun­cil op­posed the rules, say­ing they would be a bur­den on farm­ers.

At a hear­ing that drew about 100 peo­ple prior to the vote, Farm Bu­reau pres­i­dent Harry Ott said more sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion is needed be­fore im­pos­ing ground­wa­ter re­stric­tions.

With 100,000 mem­bers, the Farm Bu­reau is one of the most in­flu­en­tial ad­vo­cacy groups in South Carolina.

“If th­ese reg­u­la­tions are put in place, (they will) be used as a tool to keep farm­ers from farm­ing,’’ said Ott, a for­mer state leg­is­la­tor.

How­ever, al­most all of the 25 speak­ers at the pre-vote hear­ing sup­ported the wa­ter-use re­stric­tions.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Aiken County Coun­cil, Bam­berg County Coun­cil, the S.C. Coastal Con­ser­va­tion League and the city of Aiken, as well as state Rep. Bill Tay­lor, R-Aiken, were among those speak­ing in fa­vor of the re­stric­tions.

Lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials said they worry that, with­out re­stric­tions, they will lose the ground­wa­ter that wa­ter util­i­ties use to sup­ply their cus­tomers.

Bam­berg County Coun­cil­man Trent Ki­nard said ever-dwin­dling ground­wa­ter lev­els could hurt the Edisto River and its trib­u­taries, which get much of their flow from ground­wa­ter. The Edisto is a ma­jor source of re­cre­ation and at the heart of the ACE Basin na­ture pre­serve.

Earldell Trow­ell, who lives near a mega-corn farm in the Edisto River basin, said she knows first-hand what it is like to lose wa­ter. Trow­ell re­counted how her well dried up sev­eral years ago, forc­ing her to spend money to sink it deeper into the ground.

“We need new rules so we can stop mega-farm­ers from (de­stroy­ing) our wa­ter sup­ply,’’ Trow­ell said.

The S.C. De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources called for wa­ter-use re­stric­tions in the area in 2004. How­ever, DHEC did not act. The Charles­ton, Beau­fort, Myr­tle Beach and Florence ar­eas al­ready have ground­wa­ter re­stric­tions.

Meg Mor­gan Adams, the Edisto river­keeper, said the state’s ground­wa­ter-with­drawal pro­gram still needs strength­en­ing. But, she added, Thurs­day’s vote “is the first step we need to take to pro­tect our ground­wa­ter re­sources.’’

The new rules would not ap­ply im­me­di­ately to new farms or the more than 300 ex­ist­ing farm­ing op­er­a­tions that now with­draw large amounts of ground­wa­ter in the seven coun­ties.

First, the state must de­velop a plan on how to con­trol ground­wa­ter with­drawals.. That could in­clude get­ting in­put from lo­cal of­fi­cials on whether to ap­prove per­mits.

Af­ter that plan is de­vel­oped, farms that use 3 mil­lion gal­lons or more per month would need per­mits from DHEC.

DHEC never has rejected an ap­pli­ca­tion for a per­mit in other parts of the state. But reg­u­la­tors say their over­sight has helped limit unchecked with­drawals of ground­wa­ter.

Photo cour­tesy Sa­van­nah River­keeper

Mega crop farms have caused an uproar in parts of South Carolina. In the Edisto River basin, farms have cleared thou­sands of acres of land and si­phoned up bil­lions of gal­lons of wa­ter. This photo was taken in Orange­burg County.

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