Editorial: SC water withdrawal law should better balance farms, larger society

04/19/2014 9:00 PM

04/18/2014 3:41 PM

WE LONG have treated farmers differently than other manufacturers, based on the vital role they play in our life. That has not changed, and we can’t foresee it ever changing.

But farming sometimes gets an extra layer of special treatment based on romantic notions about family farmers. It’s like the different treatment we give to mom-and-pop businesses (think the Obamacare exemptions for small businesses), squared.

Unfortunately, those romantic notions are too often just that today: romantic notions. Although we still have a number of small, family operated farms, the overwhelming majority of our food is produced by mega-farms that have more in common with other manufacturers than with traditional farming.

Corporate farms deserve the same special consideration we would give to any industry that society has deemed essential; they do not deserve that extra level of special treatment they get because of our outdated notions about farming.

Which brings us to the debate that has arisen in our state since we learned last year of plans by a Michigan agribusiness to withdraw up to 9.6 billion gallons of water annually from the South Fork of the Edisto River, a narrow stream that critics say couldn’t survive that during periods of drought.

It’s important to note that Walther Farms acted in good faith and obeyed the law when it filled out the paperwork for huge water withdrawals. And indeed, the family that owns the company since has reached an out-of-court agreement with environmentalists to cut its withdrawals to a maximum of about 3 billion gallons; that speaks well of the family and of the groups that sued.

The problem never was with Walther Farms. The problem was, and is, our three-year-old surface-water withdrawal law.

Most businesses that want to withdraw more than 3 million gallons per year from the state’s steams, rivers and lakes must get permission from DHEC, in a public process that involves reviewing “the anticipated effect” the withdrawal would have on neighbors who share a river. The agency is required by law to examine how large withdrawals affect fish, navigation, wildlife or recreation.

But agricultural interests need only notify DHEC of their plans for large withdrawals, and regulators are required to approve those withdrawals based almost entirely on a mathematical formula of river flow, in an internal process that the public doesn’t know about until after the fact and that critics say relies too heavily on averages.

As the Walther case demonstrates, this law encourages farms to use more of our resources than they actually need. This farm obviously doesn’t need to withdraw as much water as it initially projected. Its plans were based on the fact that the law didn’t ask it to consider alternatives that posed a smaller danger to our resources, while still allowing it the resources it needed to operate.

The right policy for our state lies somewhere between treating mega-farms like textile manufacturers and giving them an almost unlimited hand to use our shared natural resources however they see fit. Lawmakers need to find that balance.

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