After months of disputes, a South Carolina river conservation group has reached a legal settlement with a Michigan-based agribusiness over the company’s plans to siphon water from the South Fork of the Edisto River.
Friends of the Edisto and Walther Farms agreed to concessions offered by the company, including cutting water withdrawals by nearly two-thirds to irrigate two massive potato farms in Aiken and Barnwell counties. Walther planned to draw up to 9 billion gallons of water annually, reducing that amount with groundwater wells.
The agreement does not require limits on Walther’s withdrawals during periods of drought, a concern many citizens voiced citing the narrow South Fork’s tendency to run dry during summer months.
Tim Rogers, a lawyer for Friends of the Edisto, said the group conceded to that request but will continue pushing the state legislation to amend the surface water withdrawal law that exempts agriculture from having a contingency plan for periods of low water flow.
“The Edisto is infamous for the volatility of its water stream, especially in the warmer months,” said Rogers, adding that low flows often coincide with months when water is most needed to irrigate crops.
Walther Farms, who denied repeated media requests during the dispute, broke its silence Tuesday, saying the company values sustainable farming practices.
“The community backlash caught us off guard and affected us personally,” said Jason Walther, CEO of Walther Farms in a news release. “We wanted to take the necessary steps to address each and every fear.”
Following public outcry, Walther invited environmental groups and state agriculture leaders to tour the 3,000-acre farm near Windsor, S.C.
“Our family understands and appreciates the concerns expressed and wants to help demonstrate our commitment to working together as friends to preserve South Carolina’s natural resources now and for future generations,” he said.
Also in the settlement, Walther Farms agreed to install a USGS stream flow gauge near the water intake site, complete a contingency plan for periods of reduced flow including at least one groundwater well and maintain tree buffers to prevent stormwater runoff.
Walther Farms said the concessions amount to changes costing $500,000.
Rogers said the compromise was the result of extensive negotiations and assurances that Walther Farm will protect the Edisto.
“They are very professional farmers and they were sincere in the positions they took,” Rogers said. “I continue to believe it’s important to trust their promises.”