State environmental officials proposed late Friday to regulate large withdrawals of groundwater from mega-farms, industries and others for the first time in a seven-county area, including Aiken and Lexington.
In a notice to media outlets after 5 p.m., the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control released a report saying it plans to require permits for anyone wanting to withdraw more than 3 million gallons of groundwater per month.
The release of the plan, which must be approved by the agency’s board, is not a surprise in light of an outcry in Aiken County to better oversee large withdrawals, including those from mega vegetable farms, that are suspected of affecting groundwater levels. DHEC officials earlier this month said they planned to regulate the area after The State newspaper reported on water level declines near a mega-farm in Aiken County.
But Friday’s plan provides details and formally sets in motion DHEC’s efforts to regulate groundwater in an area the agency previously did not think warranted oversight. Studies dating to 2004 have called for regulation in the state’s inner coastal plain – and DHEC’s report Friday finally agrees that seven of those counties need oversight. It says big farms and public water supply demands are lowering groundwater.
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The agency’s report says “water level declines in the aquifer systems of concern have been influenced by an increase in population, public water supply use and agricultural activities using groundwater and a series of long-standing droughts that have reduced recharge to the aquifer systems.’’
Groundwater levels have declined in one aquifer from 5 to 15 feet, depending on the county, since 2001. That aquifer, the Middendorf/McQueen Branch, has seen declines of 5 feet in Aiken County, 10 feet in Barnwell and Lexington counties, 12 feet in Allendale County, and 15 feet in Bamberg, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties, according to the DHEC report.
Aquifers are large pockets of saturated earth that, when pumped, produce water. They often are separated by layers of clay. In this case, DHEC says the aquifers are connected, and those who use groundwater are pulling from the same water supply.
“As the development of the groundwater resource continues, further water level declines will be expected and the potential for adverse impacts to current and future groundwater users will become more frequent and serious over time,’’ the report said.
DHEC will now begin seeking input from the public, and agency staff expect to take the plan to the DHEC board in October for a vote on whether to impose groundwater controls in the seven-county area. Counties to be regulated are Aiken, Lexington, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Calhoun and Orangeburg. To get permits, large water users would go through a review period and the public would be allowed to comment, a process that does not now exist in these counties.
The department’s report follows a series of stories in The State about large industrial scale farms that studies have shown have affected groundwater levels and river levels in the upper Edisto River basin of eastern Aiken and Barnwell counties. The farms have stirred community unrest since they first arrived about four years ago following major land purchases by out-of-state agribusinesses. Other large farms have existed for decades in other counties, including Lexington
For more information, see DHEC’s website. http://scdhec.gov/environment/waterquality/groundusereporting/GroundWaterPlans/WesternCapacityUseArea/