DHEC hearing

Potato farm opponents cry foul at Aiken public hearing

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 7, 2014 

About twenty five people gathered at 701 Whaley to travel via bus to a hearing at Aiken Electric Cooperative. The group planned to voice their opposition to what could be the largest potato farm in South Carolina. Plans for the farm would take billions of gallons of water from the South Fork of the Edisto River.

GERRY MELENDEZ — Gerry Melendez

— An angry crowd ripped state regulators and politicians Tuesday night for allowing a large potato farm to siphon billions of gallons of water from the Edisto River basin without telling the public.

“These people are sucking the water out,” area resident Jim Bassett said of the potential impact the potato farm will have on the Edisto’s narrow South Fork. “I’ll be able to walk across it.”

A crowd estimated at 350 people spent more than two hours listening to state regulators explain why officials did not stop Walther Farms from setting up shop along the banks of the Edisto River’s South Fork, a small river that runs through Aiken County and includes the headwaters of the ACE Basin nature preserve.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control had no choice but to approve the first phase of Walther’s operation because South Carolina law specifically exempts agriculture from many requirements in the state’s 2010 surface water withdrawal law, agency officials said during the meeting at a local electric cooperative.

South Carolina’s law requires DHEC to approve water withdrawals from farms, as long as the withdrawals are within what is known as a “safe yield,” agency officials said. The law doesn’t require public notice of proposed withdrawals, but DHEC’s study showed the South Fork can withstand the amount Walther needs to irrigate thousands of acres of potato fields, agency officials said.

Few people seemed satisfied with DHEC’s decision or with state lawmakers who negotiated exemptions to the law after talks with the state’s powerful farm lobby several years ago.

Many at the meeting questioned why DHEC did not take a harder line on Walther’s withdrawals when there is evidence the siphoning could deplete the small river during dry periods. The river is less than 25 feet wide in places and, at times, under 4 feet deep.

Some also asked why the agency didn’t consult the S.C. Department of Natural Resources about the impact of the withdrawals on fish and wildlife. DHEC’s David Wilson said there was no need to because the law doesn’t allow the agency to rely on the information. The agency’s review of agricultural withdrawals is limited to a mathematical formula, officials said.

“Ya’ll are shameful,” an angry Larry Price told DHEC officials. “You ain’t protecting a .... thing but your jobs.” He said the potato farm isn’t “doing nothing but raping this river.”

Some at the meeting were surprised to hear that the Legislature provided breaks to agriculture that other major businesses were not afforded in the 2010 water withdrawal law.

Irmo resident Paul Pridgen said both DHEC and state legislators were trying to blame each other for allowing the big farm to take so much water. He said Walther’s unannounced entry into South Carolina shows how the system works against the public. He said the Legislature had colluded with big business at public expense.

After the meeting, he said the “guys at DHEC got beat up and the politicians got slapped around, but I think a lot of people in that room left saying ‘not a lot got accomplished.’ The people felt totally powerless. It’s sad.”

A handful of lawmakers concerned about the water withdrawals attended the meeting, including Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, said lawmakers would weigh the public’s concerns, but changing the law could take years.

The meeting drew local hunters and fishermen, as well as environmentalists from across the state. One group, the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, took dozens of people on a bus from Columbia to the hearing.

Walther Farms, a Michigan headquartered company, has said little about the operation and did not have representatives speak at the meeting. The company has said it won’t hurt the environment.

Walther has been working behind the scenes with state agriculture officials to try and soothe public concerns. Officials with the state Farm Bureau, which helped gain exemptions for agriculture from the 2010 law, attended the meeting but did not say anything, either.

DHEC gave Walther approval last spring – without public notice or the chance for the public to comment – to withdraw more than 6 billion gallons of water from the South Fork each year to irrigate a farm on 3,700 acres the company bought near Windsor.

The company has a second permit pending to withdraw more than 3 billion gallons more from the river, about three miles downstream. All told, the company’s farming operations would occur on an estimated 5,000 acres, largely in central Aiken and Barnwell counties, say farm opponents.

DHEC officials say the Walther operation would take only a fraction of the South Fork’s water. The mean annual daily flow of the river is about 241 million gallons per day, but Walther’s withdrawals would take less than 27 million gallons each day, the department said.

An appeal by Friends of the Edisto, an environmental group, says up to two-thirds of the river could be sucked away by potato farming during dry periods.

The South Fork, much of it in central Aiken County, joins the North Fork out of Aiken and Lexington counties to form the main stem of the Edisto River, said to be the longest blackwater river in the country. The Edisto River runs through the heart of the ACE Basin, a nationally known nature preserve in the Lowcountry.

Water quality and quantity are important because so much of the river basin is undisturbed. The ACE includes major duck-hunting grounds, endangered species, old rice plantations and extensive forests.

Walther Farms has 13,000 acres of potato fields in eight states, mostly in the West but also in Florida and Georgia. The company’s operation in South Carolina will grow potatoes for companies such as Frito Lay to make chips.

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