Edisto River group settles potato farm suit

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 28, 2014 

An aerial of a portion of the future potato farm.

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A river protection group in South Carolina will drop its lawsuit against a Michigan farm corporation after reaching a settlement over the company's water withdrawals from the South Fork of the Edisto River.

The agreement between Friends of the Edisto and Walther Farms says the company will cut by about two-thirds the amount of water it originally planned to siphon from the narrow South Fork to irrigate two tracts totaling 5,200 acres.

Reached over the weekend, the settlement does not require limits on Walther’s withdrawals during periods of drought, a concern many people had voiced when the state Department of Health and Environmental Control approved the withdrawals last year. DHEC examined average river flows, but many people said the siphoning could hurt the river during periods of dry weather when water levels are low in the South Fork, a narrow stream about an hour’s drive southwest of Columbia.

Tim Rogers, president of Friends of the Edisto, said the agreement still is significant because it reduces the overall withdrawals sharply.

“Each of these concessions are positive and important,’’ Rogers said. “Each was the product of hard negotiations.’’

Jason Walther, the company’s president and chief executive officer, also was pleased with the agreement.

“We have from the beginning appreciated the passion and the concerns of the community, and we’re excited to work with them to find a resolution that works for all of us,’’ he said Tuesday. “Usually farmers and their communities work through issues. I think the example we have here is a good demonstration of that.’’

S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina sent out statements Tuesday applauding the accord as a reasonable resolution to a dispute that, in some corners, had become bitter of late. Weathers enlisted the help of Dana Beach, head of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, to try and reach an agreement.

“Like other farmers in our state, the Walther family values natural resources and has demonstrated a willingness to help protect the Edisto River,” Weathers statement said. “Agribusiness is the state’s leading industry and it is equally important to promote future growth. This agreement shows that we can work together to meet the goals of both agriculture and conservation.”

The agreement is based on a compromise the company offered about two weeks ago in an attempt to settle the case by Friends of the Edisto, which had appealed DHEC’s approval of the farm’s irrigation plan. The company originally proposed to take up to 9.6 billion gallons from the river each year from two sites, an amount Friends of the Edisto said would take a toll on the river’s water levels.

But the agreement between the friends group and Walther now cuts the amount of withdrawals to about 3 billion gallons collectively from the two sites.

Walther’s operation in South Carolina will be the largest potato farm in the state, dwarfing any other potato-growing business.

According to the settlement agreement:

-- Walther will cut in half its withdrawals for a 3,700-acre farm tract in Aiken County. The new withdrawal amount would be about 3 billion gallons annually. Walther originally wanted to take more than 6 billion gallons annually.

-- The company will abandon plans to take about 3 billion gallons annually from the South Fork at a second 1,500-acre site downstream in Barnwell County. The company will cancel a DHEC application for the withdrawal within 30 days and will use only groundwater at the second site to irrigate crops for the next year.

-- After one year at the Barnwell County site, the agreement allows Walther to seek a withdrawal from the South Fork to serve the 1,500-acre tract, but it must notify Friends of the Edisto of any plans to do so. A Walther executive told The State on Monday the company would use river water from the Barnwell site only as a backup to a groundwater irrigation system.

-- Walther will submit a plan that could reduce withdrawals from the Aiken County site during times of drought. The company has said it is working on using some groundwater, to reduce river withdrawals during droughts.

-- The company will pay up to $35,000 to set up and operate a stream flow gauge near a major water withdrawal pipe on the South Fork at the first farm site.

-- Within three months, Walther will plant vegetation in an area that was cleared to install water siphoning pipes on the South Fork in Aiken County.

-- The company will maintain 560 acres of forested area between the potato fields and the river to buffer the South Fork from the agricultural operation.

Rogers said the next step for his group is to push for a tougher law regulating large withdrawals from rivers by farms, which are largely exempt from many rules in the state’s 2010 surface water act. Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, plans to introduce legislation. Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, already has done so in the upper chamber. Some discussion has surfaced about a moratorium on large farm withdrawals until the law can be tightened, although Rogers said the Walther agreement prevents withdrawals from the second site for the next year.

For now, Walther Farms officials have “ pledged .... that they will be good stewards of the land and the River,’’ he said. “They have pledged to be good neighbors and work with their neighbors to help conserve our precious natural resources. Trust takes time to build. But I have become convinced of their sincerity, and I am impressed by their professional skills. Time will tell, but I will make the effort to give them the benefit of the doubt.''

In return for offering the concessions, Friends of the Edisto agreed not to take action that would stop Walther from planting its first potato crop on the land in February and March.

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