Edisto River threatened by weak water law, national report says

sfretwell@thestate.comApril 9, 2014 

— Gently flowing and deeply shaded, the Edisto River’s South Fork is revered by the people who fish in its tea-colored water and hunt along its forested banks.

But the narrow river is in trouble and big farms are to blame, according to a conservation group’s most recent national report on threatened waterways.

The South Fork of the Edisto rates sixth on American Rivers’ list of most endangered U.S. waterways, primarily because of irrigation threats from large farms. Without stronger laws to control agricultural withdrawals, irrigation plans could turn the South Fork into little more than a trickle when rainfall is scarce, the national group says.

“Lax state laws enable excessive water withdrawals, threatening the Edisto and other rivers in South Carolina,” the American Rivers report said.

The report said the threat was highlighted this past winter by a large potato farm’s plan to irrigate with river water. The plan at one time would have taken up to 9.6 billion gallons of water from the river each year.

After a public outcry, Walther Farms of Michigan sharply reduced its proposed withdrawals. But even at the lower amount, the siphoning still could take up to 35 percent of the river’s flow during dry periods, said Gerrit Jobsis, southeast regional director with American Rivers in Columbia.

“Scientific studies have documented that fish and wildlife are adversely affected by far less severe flow alterations than those on the South Fork,” the study said.

The South Fork is only about 25 feet wide in places, and shallow enough to walk across during certain times of the year.

Jobsis said his group’s report underscores the need for South Carolina to “correct an unfair water management scheme that favors” farms over other businesses that suck up river water. A 2010 state law exempted farms from needing permits for major river withdrawals, meaning the plans go through less stringent environmental reviews than industries and the public isn’t given a chance to comment.

Not everyone agrees with the report’s conclusions that the potato farm will have a material impact on the Edisto’s South Fork – or that South Carolina needs a tougher river protection law.

The S.C. Farm Bureau has launched an aggressive campaign to block changes in the law. The Palmetto Agribusiness Council also has reservations. At least three bills have been introduced in the Legislature to address farm withdrawals.

“Until there is some scientific reason for changes to be made, we’re comfortable with where things are,” Agribusiness Council president Jack Shuler said.

Reggie Hall, a spokesman for the Farm Bureau, challenged American Rivers to provide more data to back up its claim that “excessive” farm withdrawals are affecting the Edisto’s South Fork.

“I’m not aware of any excessive withdrawals from our perspective,” Hall said.

The South Fork is one of two branches that form the main stem of the Edisto River, a widely acclaimed waterway that is believed to be the longest undammed blackwater river in the country. The main part of the Edisto is the centerpiece of the sprawling ACE Basin nature preserve that runs through the Lowcountry between the Charleston and Hilton Head Island areas. The ACE is known for old rice plantations, deep swamps and an abundance of wildlife, including migrating ducks, deer, alligators and bald eagles.

On the upper reaches of the Edisto River lies the South Fork, also rich in wildlife and scenery. The stream begins in Edgefield County west of Columbia before merging with the North Fork below Orangeburg. Water quality and water supply are increasing issues on both of the relatively remote rivers, which in places are covered by thick canopies of trees.

This isn’t the first time American Rivers has included a South Carolina river in its annual ranking. The Catawba, Saluda and Santee rivers are among those that have made the list in the past because of environmental threats.

Most of the rivers in this year’s report are in the West and Midwest, where threats from runoff pollution and oil and gas drilling are concerns. The Edisto’s South Fork and the Haw River in North Carolina are the only two waterways on the East Coast to make the top 10 list of most endangered rivers.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., American Rivers focuses on protecting and restoring rivers across the country.

Whether South Carolina will tighten the law for farm withdrawals is unlikely this year since only about two months remain in the legislative session.

Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said the realistic goal for this year is to have a public meeting to discuss the legislative changes. Smith has filed legislation to require more state control over large withdrawals, as well as a moratorium on big withdrawals until state law can be tightened.

“I’d like to get a moratorium passed,” Smith said. “We don’t want to find ourselves in this situation again.”

The potato farm issue has been a source of controversy since late last year, when the public began to learn about the plan. After becoming aware of the proposal, many were incensed about the lack of public notice and what they said would be a major impact on the South Fork.

Friends of the Edisto, a small river protection group, filed suit to stop the farm but eventually settled its case when the farm’s owners agreed to cut back on withdrawals from the river. The potato operation’s owner, Walther Farms, said it didn’t want to hurt the river and would rely more on groundwater.

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