Huge potato farm’s plan reaches State House

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 15, 2014 

Crews work in December on the piping system necessary to siphon up to 9.6 billion gallons of water needed annually to irrigate a mega potato farm coming to Aiken County.

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A mega potato farm, which detractors say could suck too much water from the Edisto River basin, was used Wednesday as an example of how South Carolina’s 2010 water withdrawal law unfairly favors agribusinesses over other industries.

The topic, along with solar energy and large garbage landfills, came up during an annual meeting in which the Conservation Voters of South Carolina lays out its legislative agenda to lawmakers. About 100 people attended the session for senators, including potato farm opponents from Aiken County.

Walther Farms has state approval to siphon billions of gallons of water from the Edisto River’s South Fork, a narrow waterway that includes the headwaters of the ACE Basin nature preserve through the Lowcountry. The farm would encompass at least two sites estimated at 5,000 acres in Aiken and Barnwell counties.

The big farm’s irrigation plan had state Sen. Chip Campsen stirred up – and he said so.

Campsen, R-Charleston, said nearly 14 percent of the Edisto’s South Fork could be slurped up under the approval it received from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“That’s too much to permit one user to take without going through a permitting process,” said Campsen, who is proposing a bill to more tightly regulate Walther and other major farms. “These resources are public resources.”

Campsen plans to introduce a bill requiring Walther Farms and other agribusinesses to obtain permits before taking major withdrawals from rivers. Unlike industries, big farms can get state approval for large withdrawals without the public having a chance to appeal or comment. The withdrawals also face less stringent oversight during times of drought.

The state’s 2010 law wasn’t intended to allow Walther to take more than 800 million gallons per month from a river, as proposed, without better state oversight, he said.

“The act has a loophole that creates a drain hole potentially in our state’s rivers,’’ said Campsen, who chairs the Senate Fish Game and Forestry Committee.

His remarks followed comments by Gerrit Jobsis, a regional director for the environmental group American Rivers. Jobsis said the existing water withdrawal law does not require that farms curtail their siphoning during periods when river levels are naturally low. During extreme droughts that lower river levels, the law would allow Walther to take some 70 percent of the South Fork for irrigation, he said.

“There would be very little (water) for fish and wildlife,’’ Jobsis said.

But Rep. Bill Hixon, R-Aiken, said he wants to make sure any changes in the water withdrawal law don’t unwittingly hurt farming operations.

“I try my best to protect the farmers because what they grow we will be eating,’’ he said in an interview afterward. “America needs to eat. So the farmer needs to be able to produce what we eat. And it takes water to do that.’’

The Conservation Voters, an umbrella organization for the state’s environmental groups to lobby the Legislature, did not take a formal position on Campsen’s proposed bill.

But its representatives did push for a law that would make it easier for people to tap solar energy in a state that historically has shunned solar. The Coastal Conservation League’s Hamilton Davis urged senators to loosen state restrictions on solar power.

The voters group also spoke against a bill that would further open the state’s garbage market to national waste corporations. Approval of the bill could allow private corporations to take control of public landfills and import more trash to a state with a history of being the nation’s dumping ground, say environmentalists, who have taken out television ads and bought billboard advertising to state their case.

A briefing for House members will be held later this month.

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