Aiken County potato farm deal won’t end debate

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 28, 2014 

An aerial of a portion of the future potato farm.

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In settling a lawsuit with a Michigan agribusiness, a non-profit group persuaded the company not to draw as much water from the Edisto River basin as the business once planned for irrigation at a sprawling potato farm.

But Tuesday’s agreement between Friends of the Edisto and Walther Farms doesn’t resolve a larger question before the state Legislature, where a battle is developing over how farms use rivers to irrigate their crops.

A 2010 law largely exempts agriculture from the same rules that industries and other businesses must follow if they want to pull large amounts of water from a river. The law could allow a massive farm to virtually drain a river with little oversight, critics of the statute say.

Now that the legal challenge has been settled, Friends of the Edisto president Tim Rogers said it’s time to plug holes in the state’s porous water-withdrawal law. Rogers said he’ll support efforts to make sure agriculture is treated much like other businesses.

South Carolina was fortunate Walther Farms was willing to negotiate with Friends of the Edisto on the potato farm siphoning, but that doesn’t protect the Edisto or other rivers from future farm withdrawals, said Rogers and Rep. James Smith, a Columbia Democrat.

“The Edisto is not the only river that would be at risk,” Smith said. “My hope is we can get something done this year. I hear a lot of support from Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate.”

Smith plans to introduce legislation that would treat farms more like businesses that want to withdraw water, although he said he’s still working on the bill he hopes to introduce early next month. Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, already has introduced legislation in the upper chamber to more tightly oversee irrigation plans from rivers. Some discussion also has surfaced about a moratorium on large farm withdrawals.

“Now it is time for all concerned about the future of South Carolina’s rivers to put their oars in the water and strive for significant changes in the law,” S.C. Wildlife Federation director Ben Gregg said. “The battle now is for the future of every South Carolina river.”

Making that change may be difficult, however.

South Carolina’s influential Farm Bureau has launched a website accusing Walther Farm critics – which it did not name – of trying to wreck the state’s farm economy with radical, extremist ideas. It has the support of the powerful state Chamber of Commerce and retained an aggressive, sharp-tongued group of political operatives to fight against changing the law.

At the same time, the Legislature is in the second year of a two-year term, meaning new bills that don’t pass by the time lawmakers adjourn in June could not be carried over until the next Legislative session for action.

Reggie Hall, a spokesman for the S.C. Farm Bureau, was not available Tuesday, but said recently that the organization would oppose changing the law because the statute has not been in place long.

“Our motivation for this campaign is more about keeping irrational decisions about the law from happening,” Hall said last week.

South Carolina’s water-withdrawal law gives breaks to farms in numerous ways. Among them: It doesn’t require that the public be notified of any large farm withdrawal, nor does it allow for public hearings so citizens can voice their concerns.

Also, farm withdrawals don’t fall under the same scrutiny by the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Unlike with farms, DHEC must look at “the anticipated effect” siphoning plans by businesses would have on neighbors who share a river. For businesses other than farms, DHEC is specifically required to examine how big withdrawals affect fish, navigation, wildlife or recreation for businesses.

But the law requires state regulators to approve agricultural withdrawals based almost entirely on a mathematical formula of river flow, DHEC officials say.

Tuesday’s settlement between Friends of the Edisto and Walther Farms resolves a challenge to an approval by DHEC for the withdrawals. The deal says the company will cut by about two-thirds the amount of water it originally planned to siphon from the South Fork of the Edisto River to irrigate two tracts totaling 5,200 acres.

Walther’s operation in South Carolina will be the largest potato farm in the state.

The settlement does not require limits on Walther’s withdrawals during periods of drought, a concern many people had voiced when DHEC 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.

Rogers, a lawyer and former state legislator, said the agreement still is significant because it reduces the overall withdrawals sharply.

Jason Walther, the company’s president and chief executive officer, said he’s not ready to discuss changes in state law, but he was pleased with the agreement.

“Usually farmers and their communities work through issues,” he said. “I think the example we have here is a good demonstration of that.”

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.

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 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, but it must notify Friends of the Edisto of any plans to do so. A Walther executive told The State newspaper the company would use river water from the Barnwell site only as a backup to a groundwater irrigation system.

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Reach Fretwelll at (803) 771-8537.

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