Conservationists oppose Aiken County potato farm, question water law

 

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.

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conducted its only required analysis – a “safe yield” test that determines the amount of water that can be safely withdrawn without significant ecological impact.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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