AIKEN Just about every time Carina Crawford leaves her home in the Windsor community, she passes a mega farm sprawling across the landscape.
Hundreds of millions of gallons of groundwater spray the farm’s corn every summer, making the crop grow so fast Crawford says she can almost watch the stalks get taller.
“It reminds me of science fiction,’’ she said.
But while Crawford wonders whether the farm is taking too much groundwater, she also worries about the amount of fertilizer the farm uses. She voiced those concerns Thursday night at a meeting that was supposed to be about new groundwater regulations, but it turned into a broader discussion of how mega farms are affecting central and eastern Aiken County.
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Many in the crowd of 120 asked state regulators about well pollution, the state’s weak surface water law and crop dusting planes that spray farms near their homes. Others asked how DHEC verifies data that farms and others report on their water use.
"They see these mega farms taking over,’’ Crawford said after addressing the crowd. “People have been overwhelmed by what’s happening.’’
Since 2013, out-of-state farm corporations have acquired about 10,000 acres in the Edisto River basin, cleared forests and established crop-growing operations bigger than many people are used to. The farms, some of which approach 1,000 acres, dwarf the average-sized farm in South Carolina. The greatest concentration of them is in the Windsor-area between Lexington and Aiken.
Cole Page, who has clashed with some of the mega farmers, said he tested water in a creek below a crop field and found pollution levels that exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for one contaminant.
"I bought a test kit, I tested and it was about three or four times higher than what EPA said on the test kit was the law,’’ Page said, asking why the state Department of Health and Environmental Control didn’t test the water. He checked the water because the creek was beginning to turn green with algae, he said.
State regulators were unable to verify Page’s account or whether the contaminant came from a mega farm.
Those attending the meeting at a local electric cooperative asked state regulators Thursday to do more environmental testing in the area and to consider tighter controls on mega farms. Crawford, a horse farmer, said she’d also like the state to charge for groundwater permits to help pay for regulation. A handful of local and state politicians also attended, as did a representative of Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s office.
State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, said he’s working to better understand how crop dusters affect the area. Taylor said he has met recently with officials from Clemson University, which recently fined a crop duster $1,000 for violating aerial spraying rules. Taylor and officials from Clemson, which regulates pesticides, will hold a meeting in late February for the public at a school that lies next to a mega farm in Windsor.
Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said it appeared to him that most people favor groundwater regulations, as he does. But it’s also clear that some people have broader concerns.
“There is a section of Aiken County that is genuinely concerned about these large farms that have located here,’’ Young said following Thursday’s meeting. “A lot of those folks were here tonight in this meeting.’’
Representatives of the S.C. Farm Bureau and Michigan-headquartered Walther Farms, a larger potato-growing operation, attended the meeting but did not speak.
The purpose of Thursday night’s Department of Health and Environmental Control meeting was not to discuss whether the state needs to restrict water use by the big farms, industries and public water utilities. That proposal has been under review for much of the past year and is expected to go to the DHEC board in April for a decision.
South Carolina doesn’t oversee groundwater withdrawals from the Georgia border near Aiken to the North Carolina border near Cheraw, making it possible for mega farms and industries to take as much water as they want – forever.
Now, after 14 years of inaction, DHEC wants to regulate groundwater withdrawals in one of the state’s most prolific farming areas. That area includes Aiken, Lexington, Orangeburg and four other counties where groundwater levels have dropped during the past two decades. Those areas now are not regulated, as are coastal parts of South Carolina.
DHEC has identified dwindling groundwater throughout the seven-county area as the population has increased, and as farms and public water supply systems have pumped more water, the agency says. Since 2001, water levels have declined five feet in two of Aiken County’s deeper aquifers, pockets of soil that hold water, according to DHEC. The overall decline in the water table goes back to the 1990s, officials said. Declines are higher in some surrounding counties.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control proposed the groundwater regulations after The State newspaper reported last year on the growing number of mega-farms that have located between Aiken and Lexington since 2013. Since 2015, out-of-state agribusinesses have sucked up more than 2 billion gallons of Aiken groundwater, an amount larger than some small water systems have used, the newspaper reported last year.
Groundwater is a major source of irrigation for farms throughout South Carolina. Overall, farms siphon about one-third of the more than 90 billion gallons of groundwater used in a year’s time, records show.
The proposed state rules would apply only to farms, industries and utilities that draw large amounts of groundwater. Small farms would not be affected. Anyone withdrawing at least 3 million gallons a month of groundwater would need a state permit before they could begin pumping, according to the plan. Permits would be good for five years and would be issued after farms or industrial plants showed DHEC that water withdrawals wouldn’t hurt public water supplies.
While some critics say South Carolina’s groundwater rules aren’t strong enough, they do provide some oversight of big water users, such as mega farms.The rules require public notice of proposed major groundwater withdrawals and offer other safeguards that now do not exist in the seven-county area.
Crawford said the regulation might mean farmers become more careful with their water use. While big farms say they are already careful, Crawford said she’s seen crops being watered through irrigation systems while it is raining.
“This is an environmental issue,’’ she said.