South Carolina’s top water regulator has left the post after 13 months on the job as part of an agency staff shakeup that’s intended to improve oversight of rivers and groundwater, which are under increasing pressure from utilities, big businesses and industrial scale farms.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control has moved David Baize from water bureau director to a water policy adviser position, while hiring former Duke Energy official Mark Hollis as interim director, according to an email Tuesday night from DHEC’s environmental affairs chief to employees.
The change was effective Wednesday, according to the email from environmental chief Myra Reece. Reece said rivers and groundwater are under increasing pressure from industry, utilities, private well owners and “the recent addition of ‘mega farms’ in the state.’’
“We cannot take the future availability of water resources, both groundwater and surface water, for granted,’’ Reece said in her 6:16 p.m. email, which also noted South Carolina’s challenges are “further compounded by recurring drought conditions in certain areas of the state.’’
Reece expressed optimism with the changes at DHEC. She praised Baize and Hollis, saying both have extensive experience. The agency did not say if Baize’s new role is in a newly created position, but Reece’s email said it would complement the water bureau’s “regulatory permitting role.’’
DHEC’s decision follows The State newspaper’s series last month on mega-farms, established by out-of-state companies, that have siphoned billions of gallons of water for huge crop fields between Aiken and Columbia. The series detailed how South Carolina’s lack of strong laws and government oversight had allowed industrial farms to take more water than some community water systems use. In one case, a huge corn farm likely contributed to a temporary drop in groundwater levels last summer, and some people complained of sputtering wells, The State reported.
South Carolina’s surface water law grants major exemptions to agriculture that industries do not enjoy, while the state has no overall groundwater protection law. Even in places where groundwater is regulated, such as Charleston, DHEC has drawn criticism for failing to develop plans that are supposed to guide permit decisions.
It was not known Wednesday why Hollis, a former Duke Energy lobbyist and environmental policy official, was hired only as interim water bureau director, but Reece’s email said his stay at DHEC would be “for a limited time.’’ Hollis will be paid as a consultant at a rate of $130 per hour, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Read said. The department will conduct a search for a permanent replacement, she said.
Baize will continue to earn $99,636 in his new position, Read said. His job is to coordinate water studies, work with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, oversee drought response and help improve local groundwater management plans, Reece’s email said.
A DHEC veteran, Baize was promoted to bureau director in April 2016. He has nearly three decades of experience, having worked in the agency’s groundwater program and in its water quality monitoring division.
Hollis would earn more than $270,000 if he worked full-time for a year at DHEC. Agency director Catherine Heigel is a former Duke Energy chief in South Carolina. Hollis has more than 35 years of environmental regulatory experience.
Aiken County businessman Doug Busbee, an outspoken critic of DHEC and the state’s water laws, said the changes at the agency appear to be an effort to improve.
“It sounds like to me they are paying attention,’’ Busbee said. “It’s a positive move. Water is our most precious resource.’’
Gerrit Jobsis, southeast regional director for the environmental group American Rivers, said he’s anxious to learn more about the changes, but he agreed with Busbee that DHEC “as a regulatory agency needs to do a better job.’’
Efforts to reach Baize and Hollis were unsuccessful.