A massive potato farm’s plan to siphon water from the Edisto River basin landed its owners in court Friday as outraged opponents moved to stop the multi-billion gallon withdrawals in Aiken and Barnwell counties.
Friends of the Edisto, an environmental group, filed an appeal challenging withdrawals by Michigan-headquartered Walther Farms, which wants to irrigate thousands of acres of potato fields with water from the Edisto River’s narrow South Fork.
The appeal, filed in the S.C. Administrative Law Court, said state regulators broke a series of state and federal laws, including South Carolina’s 2010 surface water act, when they approved Walther’s plan last spring. The Department of Health and Environmental Control’s decision in March was the first since the law took effect in 2012.
Walther’s operation would be the state’s largest potato farm, rivaling any ever developed in South Carolina.
Friends of the Edisto’s appeal seeks to stop any withdrawals until a hearing can be held. It asks that the administrative court either reverse DHEC’s decision to approve the withdrawal or revise the withdrawal enough “to protect the river.” Withdrawals have not yet started.
Tim Rogers, a Columbia lawyer and president of the friends group, said the South Fork could suffer if the courts don’t stop Walther’s plan, projected to consume about 9.6 billion gallons annually between two different sites.
The South Fork of the Edisto is no more than 25 feet wide and four feet deep in places. Some locals say it is so shallow at times that they’ve walked across the channel without getting their knees wet.
Located mostly in Aiken, Barnwell and Orangeburg counties, the black-water river is considered significant because it contains the headwaters of the main stem of the Edisto River. The river’s main section runs through the nationally known ACE Basin nature preserve in the Lowcountry.
Rogers said both the South Fork and the main stem of the Edisto are in jeopardy.
“I’m very concerned about the river’s future,” Rogers said after filing the appeal late Friday afternoon. “This stress introduced by Walther Farms is unprecedented in our state’s history.”
Rogers said Friends of the Edisto believes DHEC’s decision “violates statutory and constitutional law in South Carolina, which provides protection for waters of our state.”
DHEC officials have said the South Fork of the Edisto has more than enough water to accommodate Walther Farms’ use of the river as a source for irrigation. Agency officials did not comment on the legal appeal, but a spokesman noted that DHEC is hosting a forum next month on the matter, and “we welcome public input.”
A Walther official could not be reached, but the company has said previously that the farm’s activities won’t harm the environment.
Despite DHEC’s assurances, evidence introduced in Friday’s legal challenge disputes that. Included in the Friends of the Edisto appeal is a research report showing that Walther’s withdrawals could take two-thirds of the water from the South Fork during some dry periods.
The report by University of South Carolina geography professor Allan James says the time of year when irrigation water is needed most is the same time when dry weather has depleted the South Fork. When DHEC approved Walther withdrawing more than 6 billion of the 9.6 billion gallons last spring, James said the agency didn’t adequately take into account dry weather’s impact on the river.
DHEC “substantially overestimates the reliability of water resources in the South Edisto,” the appeal said.
The department has drawn heavy criticism since news surfaced recently about the water use plan. People have been upset that DHEC never notified the public about the Walther proposal before approving withdrawals for the potato farm’s first phase.
But the department has said state law doesn’t require it to notify the public or allow it to use public comments in deciding on water withdrawals proposed by farms. DHEC says the 2010 law exempted agriculture, unlike other businesses, from certain requirements, including public notice.
In March, state regulators approved the company’s plan to withdraw more than 6 billion gallons annually from the South Fork. They are now considering a second withdrawal of more than 3 billion gallons from a site downriver.