Exclusive: Potato farmers offer to cut river withdrawal

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 15, 2014 

A Michigan potato farm company is offering to sharply reduce the amount of water it will siphon from the Edisto River’s narrow South Fork under a compromise offered to opponents of the hefty withdrawals.

Walther Farms would cut its withdrawals in half from one section of the South Fork and would abandon plans to take water from another part of the river several miles downstream, state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers said Wednesday.

Walther officials were not available, but Weathers said the company would rely on groundwater to replace some of the billions of gallons of surface water it had planned to take from the South Fork for irrigation.

The company also has offered to protect at least 1,600 acres of the 5,200-acre site.

The potato farm, which would be South Carolina’s largest, has sparked an outcry from people worried about the substantial river withdrawals. Friends of the Edisto has sued to stop Walther’s efforts.

Not everyone was sold on the plan Wednesday, but Weathers said he hopes Walther’s offer will halt the dispute and allow a legitimate farm company to grow potatoes in South Carolina.

It also could reassure other growers interested in South Carolina that the state welcomes them, Weathers said, noting that some other farm-related expansions are on hold because of the fight.

“They responded above and beyond,’’ Weathers said of the company’s offer. “My point is, with or without regulation, average farmers will respond positively from input from their neighbor.’’

River protection advocates, who complained loudly at a public meeting last week, said they aren’t sure Walther’s proposal goes far enough to protect the South Fork.

“I will not sell out our people,’’ said Wagener resident Doug Busbee, a leader in the fight against Walther’s siphoning. “This is going to have to be something that is beneficial to everybody before I’ll agree to anything.’’

Friends of the Edisto, of which Busbee is a member, claims in its lawsuit that the proposed potato farm will lower water levels in the South Fork, a river so narrow and shallow that people say they can walk across it during certain times of the year. The South Fork includes the sensitive headwaters of the Edisto’s main stem, an undammed blackwater river that flows through the ACE Basin nature preserve in the Lowcountry.

Bob Guild, a lawyer for Friends of the Edisto, disputed Weathers’ contention that the offer had to be accepted by today, saying it’s too early to make a decision. Busbee said the company is trying to force the issue because it needs to plant potatoes soon.

This year’s controversy has exposed an increasing conflict between farmers and outdoorsmen over the use of rivers in South Carolina, as well as loopholes in a 2010 state law. The law exempts agriculture from many water withdrawal rules that industries must follow -- including telling the public about such plans.

Walther’s compromise offer emerged after company officials met with one of the state’s leading conservationists, Dana Beach, earlier this month. Beach said he suggested the company scale back some of its plans, including a halt to chopping down about 20 acres of environmentally significant bottomland hardwood trees.

“Every single thing we asked them to do, they agreed to do,’’ Beach said. “I felt that was almost unprecedented.’’

Walther’s offer to cut water withdrawals from its Aiken County site would drop the amount from more than 6 billion gallons annually to about 3 billion gallons, Weathers said. The company also would use groundwater to irrigate the second site in Barnwell County, he said. Walther has a request with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to take about 3 billion gallons annually from the Barnwell property.

Weathers said he’s convinced Walther’s compromise plan was made in good faith by a Midwest company run by generations of the same family. The change in plans could cost the company $500,000, he said.

“They’re just like any South Carolina farmers, they just talk with an accent,’’ Weathers said. “They came here, they saw the rules and that is how they moved forward. Then, you got the reaction about the river.’’

“This has probably put back substantial investments by a year’s time in potato farming and processing. My interest is to get this settled and get this behind them so we can get South Carolina on the radar for future development.’’

 

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