According to state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, Walther Farms agreed to change its plan to siphon billions of gallons of water annually from the river to irrigate a 3,000-acre potato farm in Aiken County. The company would drill wells to replace some of the surface water draws with groundwater, Weathers said.
“(Conservationists’) concerns were heard, and the situation that has been
presented is drastically different,” the commissioner said.
Friends of the Edisto, a river advocacy group, isn’t dropping a lawsuit challenging Walther Farms’ water withdrawal registration and wants more time to conduct environmental studies on effects of water withdrawal on the Edisto, said Tim Rogers, a lawyer for the group.
The farm followed Department of Health and Environmental Control policy by registering its surface water withdrawal. Because a 2010 water law exempts agriculture from certain statutes, no public notice was given and DHEC performed its only required test – a “safe yield” analysis that determines
the amount of water that can be safely withdrawn without significant ecological impact.
“We’re still very concerned about this whole
project and about several aspects of the project,” Rogers said.
Weathers said the company also offered to install a water meter at the river intake site, stop harvesting trees near the river to provide a natural buffer and triple conservation easements on the farm property. Walther Farms will cancel its pending registration to draw water for another farm in Barnwell County and use groundwater instead, Weathers said.
Walther Farms did not respond to a voicemail left for an executive Thursday.
The potato farm is the first new site approved for withdrawals since the 2010 law took effect, and it has sparked a controversy over the state’s protection of its water sources.
John Bass, who lives in Kitchings Mill, S.C., across from the farm’s water intake site, said this issue cannot be settled until the state tightens the law and requires more than a safe yield analysis for agriculture.
“That is what will ultimately protect all the streams and rivers in South Carolina,” said Bass, who has worked for DHEC and the state Agriculture Department. “Even if they negotiate something, we have to continue pushing to
change the rules and regulations.”
State Sen. Chip Campsen, the chairman of the Senate Fish, Game and Forestry Committee, plans to introduce a bill Tuesday that would require farms planning to draw significant amounts of water to apply for a permit. This would require more environmental tests and contingencies for low-water levels, he said.
Campsen, who worked on the water law, said the Walther Farms controversy underscores the need to revisit it.
“It’s certainly a real-life example that has energized and motivated a whole lot of people,” he said.
Weathers said the dispute has put on hold some farm-related investments in the state.
“South Carolina needs to have a reputation as a business investment, friendly state for agriculture. This whole situation has hurt that,” he said.