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Conservationists oppose Aiken County potato farm, question water law

Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014 5:06 PM
Last updated Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 12:38 AM
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Protecting the cool blackwaters of the Edisto River from a mega-sized potato farm in Aiken County has sparked a public outcry over South Carolina’s weak water withdrawal law.

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Crews work on the piping system necessary to siphon millions of gallons of water needed annually to irrigate the huge potato farm. Doug Busbee, of Wagoner, has spent years traveling up and down the Edisto River and is visibly upset by  the disruption in the ecosystem.  Kim Foster-Tobin/SPECIAL
Kim Foster-Tobin/SPECIAL
Crews work on the piping system necessary to siphon millions of gallons of water needed annually to irrigate the huge potato farm. Doug Busbee, of Wagoner, has spent years traveling up and down the Edisto River and is visibly upset by the disruption in the ecosystem.
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On the Edisto River’s south fork near Windsor, S.C., Michigan-based agribusiness Walther Farms plans to siphon as much as 800 million gallons of water per month for two-thirds of the year. Conservationists say using the Edisto to irrigate what’s expected to be the largest potato farm in South Caro­lina could have devastating effects on the river’s ecosystem.

The potato farm is the first new site approved for withdrawals since a 2010 law intended to control water withdrawal provided farmers exemptions from certain parts of the statute. To opponents, Walther Farms represents the beginning of an attack on the state’s rivers and streams.

“It opened up the window so people could actually see the rules and regulations that support the law, and just how weak it is,” said John Bass, who lives in Kitchings Mill, S.C., across from the water intake site under construction.

Walther Farms followed policy registering its surface water withdrawal, and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control conducted its only required analysis – a “safe yield” test that determines the amount of water that can be safely withdrawn without significant ecological impact. No public notices or hearings were required for the registration, leaving many neighbors in the river basin shocked when crews began clear-cutting the swampy land.

Bass, who previously worked for DHEC and the state’s Agriculture Department, fears that the effects of the water siphoning won’t be known until damage has been done to the ecosystem, fisheries and wildlife.

“It’s not that we don’t want economic growth or someone to succeed in their business, with their farm,” Bass said. “It’s about more regulatory action.”

Walther Farms, which has potato farms in at least six states, did not respond to a voicemail left for an executive Thursday.

A second request from Walther Farms to withdraw water from the south fork in Barnwell County is under review by DHEC.

Conservation group Friends of the Edisto has a lawsuit pending that challenges DHEC’s approval of the registration on grounds that no public notice was given and errors were made in the safe yield analysis, said the group’s lawyer, Tim Rogers.

Although the water legislation doesn’t require public notice for the farm’s registration, Rogers said the state constitution provides “an opportunity for the public to be heard, and that was not afforded.”

George Young, a retired Sa­vannah River Site worker, has lived on the south fork his entire life. In recent weeks, he’s traveled by boat to see the 3,000-acre farm site that borders the waters where he fishes, kayaks, swims and even bathes.

“It was pretty heartbreaking the first time I saw it,” he said. “Our laws are so relaxed and that’s why they’re here. They can pretty much do whatever they want to do.”

Not only will the farm suck water from the river, but there’s also potential for harmful chemicals to run off the land into the water, Young said.

“I don’t want this river to become a science project. We can’t afford to destroy this natural resource,” he said.

The Edisto River is the longest free-flowing blackwater river in the country. The south and north forks join to form the main stem that flows through the heart of the ACE Basin, a nationally known nature preserve in South Carolina’s Low Country.

Most times, the south fork is just three to four feet deep and, in some places, 15 feet wide. In the summertime, it can be shallow enough to walk across, Bass said.

Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, said he has talked with Walther Farms about installing a USGS water flow meter at the intake site and publishing the data online. That won’t end the opposition, but it will help provide transparency, he said.

The agriculture exemption, the result of a powerful farm lobby in the state that took eight years to complete, has concerned many legislators and raised a question about river protection, Taylor said.

“Clearly, we’re going to have to go back and revisit this,” he said.

Hugo Krispyn, a filmmaker who has documented the Edisto, said DHEC’s analysis didn’t consider water withdrawals during drought conditions, when the south fork can nearly dry up. The farm exemption could benefit small farmers, but he doesn’t think it was intended for large corporations.

“Part of what’s unbelievable about this is it’s happening under what was done with eight years of effort in the Legislature with what were the best of intentions,” Krispyn said. “Nobody ever imagined a big corporate farm of this scale.”

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nocnoc
49169
Points
nocnoc 01/12/14 - 08:23 pm
3
4
I really don't know the Impact of the Fram

Really not sure if the concern is legit or not.

But I have heard wolf yelled so many times I instinctively distrust
"Conservation groups" as a whole. Much like Liberals distrust Conservatives and Conservatives distrust Liberals claims.

Maybe it time to get an INDEPENDENT UNBIASED review of the farm
that likely will feed MILLIONS in the South for less than the cost of Potato's shipped in 1500 miles away from out west?

Who knows, maybe the Potato Farmers Assoc. out West are bankrolling the protest with donations.

EdistoConcerns
7
Points
EdistoConcerns 01/12/14 - 09:19 pm
5
2
An invitation, NocNoc

Visit our Facebook page (it's public - you don't even need a FB account) - since we launched Edisto Concerns on December 11, we've linked every news story we have been able to find, every piece of information we've located, and a whole bunch of pictures and video that show exactly what's being done out on the farm(s) - visit, read, watch, and then decide for yourself. You can find it all at www.facebook.com/edistoconcerns

Don't trust our links? Then Google "Edisto potato Walther" - you'll see most of the same stuff, but you'll have to sort it yourself - we have nothing to hide.

We're not anti-farmer, by the way. Our beef is with this genuinely inadequate law - this deal on the South Fork Edisto is the first time the new ag surface water withdrawal regulations have been implemented - allowing a mega-farm to withdraw billions of gallons of water, in perpetuity, based solely on a badly flawed "safe yield" calculation, and with no public notice or input.

As things stand, this could happen literally anywhere in SC, and that is a real problem. We're calling for an immediate moratorium on any new withdrawals, pending proper study, and then implementation of rules that take the health of the river into account, not just how many gallons flow through it.

Don't take my word. Please, check it out for yourself. This isn't "us vs. them" - we're concerned about the complete lack of adequate protection for surface waters across the state - this is just the first time this has been done, so it will set the precedent.

And one last thing - according to the farm manager himself, they're growing in Aiken County specifically to supply Frito Lay for manufacture of potato chips - hardly a staple food.

curly123053
5378
Points
curly123053 01/12/14 - 09:48 pm
4
2
?

EdistoConcerns, I am concerned myself! I spent many years living in Windsor and 15 yrs on the fire dept there. I did a lot of fishing along the Edisto and over half of the time the water was not that high to me. I keep wondering when I see the amount they are planning to pull out of such a narrow channel of water. I do agree that legislation was intended for a personal farm operation and not a large corporate operation. To me Walther has a chance to be a good neighbor and respond to the concerns of the area. I think he should build gradually and allow evaluations to be done and see how well the river is handling his out takes before increasing things.

bubbasauce
24260
Points
bubbasauce 01/13/14 - 03:29 am
1
3
Let Idaho stick with the

Let Idaho stick with the potatoe growing. If our Government would just let farmers be farmers instead of giving them subsidies every year that in itself would bring down food prices.

Riverman1
93728
Points
Riverman1 01/13/14 - 04:16 am
5
1
A Real Concern

My family had a place on the Edisto for many years near Branchville. In the summer you can easily walk across it. I have to wonder about the effect on the fish.

Little Lamb
49084
Points
Little Lamb 01/13/14 - 08:30 am
1
1
Errors

From the story:

Conservation group Friends of the Edisto has a lawsuit pending that challenges DHEC’s approval of the registration on grounds that no public notice was given and errors were made in the safe yield analysis, said the group’s lawyer, Tim Rogers.

If Friends of the Edisto can prove to the administrative law judge that DHEC made errors in granting the permit, then well and good. But if no errors were made, Friends of the Edisto needs to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric.

Little Lamb
49084
Points
Little Lamb 01/13/14 - 08:33 am
1
1
Regulatory Action

From the story:

“It’s not that we don’t want economic growth or someone to succeed in their business, with their farm,” Bass said. “It’s about more regulatory action.”

The story says this John Bass lives “across from the water intake site under construction.” So I would say his objection is more about NIMBY than anything else.

seenitB4
97596
Points
seenitB4 01/13/14 - 08:38 am
2
1
You have to wonder

The news about West Virginia & their troubles with the water makes me wonder...I would think some study & safe guards are in order here....do it before giving an ok.

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