Politics & Government

January 13, 2014

SC state senator to battle controversial potato farm

A Michigan potato farm corporation would face tighter controls on major water withdrawals from the Edisto River basin under legislation being developed to close loopholes in a 2010 state law.

A Michigan potato farm corporation would face tighter controls on major water withdrawals from the Edisto River basin under legislation being developed to close loopholes in a 2010 state law.

State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said he plans to introduce a bill requiring Walther Farms to obtain a permit before it could take billions of gallons of water from the Edisto’s narrow South Fork.

The company wants to use river water to help irrigate what would be South Carolina’s largest potato farm in Aiken and Barnwell counties.

Campsen said the legislation, which could be filed this week, would apply to any farm corporation or business whose withdrawals would dry up rivers or substantially lower water levels. That, he said, includes Walther Farms, whose potato beds are projected to be on up to 5,000 acres along the South Fork.

“This would apply to them, immediately; it would stop them” from moving forward without a thorough review, Campsen said, noting that Walther is “going to take too much” from the river.

Cracking down on river withdrawals by big farms is up for discussion Wednesday in Columbia during a Senate briefing on environmental issues. Potato farm opponents are expected at the morning session.

Walther’s arrival last year in South Carolina has caused an uproar because of its plan to siphon water from the South Fork, a skinny waterway that, in places, is less than 25 feet across, and during dry periods, under 4feet deep. The South Fork, much of it in central Aiken County, includes the headwaters of the Edisto’s main stem, which runs through the ACE Basin nature preserve in the Lowcountry.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control approved Walther’s plan to take more than 6 billion gallons annually from the South Fork for irrigation, determining the small river could withstand the siphoning.

The state’s review was not as extensive as what’s required for non-agricultural withdrawals. A second withdrawal, of more than 3 billion gallons, is pending with DHEC.

READ: Farm Bureau president David Winkles guest opinion column touting Walther Farms’ impact.

Unlike many businesses and industries, farm withdrawals do not require permits, only what’s called registrations, with DHEC. Under that process, the agency doesn’t notify the public or give people a chance to examine proposed withdrawals, nor does it require DHEC to consult with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources about wildlife impacts. The agency simply does a mathematical calculation to determine the “safe yield” a river can withstand from a withdrawal – a calculation many people say was flawed in Walther’s case.

Under Campsen’s plan, withdrawals from farms or other businesses that would siphon away about 5 percent of a river, or more, would come under regulation, he said Monday, noting that the draft legislation is still being tweaked. Campsen, who chairs the Senate Fish, Game and Forestry Committee, said he expects opposition.

South Carolina’s 2010 water law, which took years to develop, required permits for major withdrawals from rivers. But while it provided some first-time oversight, farms were exempted after heavy lobbying by agricultural interests.

Attempts by The State to reach Walther Farms for comment have been unsuccessful since early December. But the S.C. Farm Bureau says Walther will produce dozens of jobs and help the state’s agricultural economy.

“I find it interesting that this farm has been so maligned by sensational reports, misconceptions and outright falsehoods,” Farm Bureau president David Winkles said in a letter to the editor of area newspapers. “ We should be celebrating the arrival of this new business to our state.”

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