Giant potato farm sparks concerns for Edisto basin

sfretwell@thestate.comDecember 10, 2013 

Walther Potato Farm in Windsor, SC

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A giant potato farm’s plan to siphon potentially billions of gallons of water from the Edisto River basin is drawing resistance from conservationists and concerns from a state agency about how that will affect the renowned river system.

Walther Farms, a national company headquartered in Michigan, has obtained South Carolina’s approval to suck water from the Edisto’s south fork in Aiken County. It now is seeking a second license to add to its withdrawals from the south fork, according to emails provided to The State newspaper.

All told, up to 9.6 billion gallons of water could be withdrawn annually and used to irrigate the mega potato farm in the Windsor community in rural Aiken County, records show.

The nearly 3,700-acre Walther site dwarfs other potato farms in South Carolina and is larger than most farms of any kind in the state, agricultural statistics show. The average-sized farm in South Carolina is less than 200 acres, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Walther’s plans have caught the attention of Edisto River advocates, who say public comments for the farm were never sought by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control under a 2010 water withdrawal law.

DHEC approved the 3,700-acre site last spring after determining that the withdrawals would not deplete the river.

But Friends of the Edisto, as well as the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, are not convinced. They say the potential effect of large withdrawals on the river could take too much water out of the Edisto basin — particularly during dry periods.

“The DNR is aware of it and we have some concerns,’’ the agency’s Bob Perry said. “There are times of the year when this could be an extraordinary amount of water to take out of the Edisto River’’ system.

Others have expressed concern about whether clear-cutting forested land for the farm will pollute the river with sediment and fertilizer.

Attempts by The State to reach Walther Farms officials were unsuccessful this week, but one of the co-owners recently told a student journalist his company will be good stewards of the land and of nearby rivers.

“We can’t afford the liability of doing things outside the regulations,’’ the company’s Jeremy Walther said.

The amount of water that could be taken from the Edisto’s south fork is small compared to some major withdrawals in South Carolina, although many of those withdrawals come from larger water bodies.

Walther’s farm is being developed in a section of South Carolina beloved by nature enthusiasts. Extending from the state’s mid-section to the coast, the Edisto River cuts through the heart of the ACE Basin nature preserve, a 200,000-acre region of swamps, old rice plantations and deep forests.

The ACE has been featured in national news stories for its scenery, wildlife and the state’s successful effort to protect it. The south fork of the Edisto, mostly in central Aiken and Orangeburg counties, and the north fork, much of it on the Aiken-Lexington county line, are narrower streams that form the main branch.

Conservationists say protecting the ecologically sensitive headwaters helps protect the entire Edisto River, the longest free-flowing blackwater river system in the country. The river basin is filled with wildlife, including alligators, bald eagles and huge fish. It also is heavily used by paddlers and is increasingly a destination for eco-tourists.

“This could have fundamental effects on the fish and the invertebrates and the critters that live in this swamp system,’’ said Tim Rogers, a Columbia attorney and long-time board member with Friends of the Edisto.

But Rogers said he’s concerned that South Carolina law apparently does not require DHEC to give public notice about corporate farming operations, such as Walther, that take extensive amounts of water from rivers.

The Walther Farms approval by DHEC is the first of its kind since the water withdrawal law passed the Legislature about three years ago, the agency said Tuesday.

Walther Farms has potato beds in eight states, many of them in the arid West but some in Florida and Georgia. The company’s South Carolina operation is expected to supply potatoes for chips.

Jeremy Walther said in a recent interview that the business primarily supplies potatoes for Frito Lay. Walther Farms will employ about 10 people to run the Aiken County operation, but it also expects to help the local economy by purchasing supplies from local businesses, he told University of South Carolina student Marjorie Sliker.

Walther said the company likes the Palmetto State’s rich soil and welcoming attitude. He said the company won’t draw too much water from the river. It’s withdrawals are tiny compared to the river’s overall flow, the company contends. But he also noted that some South Carolina water regulations are “pretty loose.’’

It was not known Tuesday if Walther Farms plans to use both groundwater and river water to irrigate its potato fields. DHEC does not regulate groundwater withdrawals in the area near the farm.

DHEC’s email did say, however, that it has not yet decided if Walther’s second request for withdrawing water from the river will harm the Edisto’s south fork. The agency also is trying to determine if Walther needs a stormwater permit for the work, DHEC said.

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