Industrial-scale farms that draw billions of gallons from South Carolina rivers won an important battle with a ruling handed down Wednesday by the S.C. Supreme Court.
The court, in a split decision, refused to reverse a 2017 ruling upholding a law that lets mega-farms siphon large amounts of river water without state permits.
A group of residents who use rivers in Greenville, Darlington and Bamberg counties had challenged the law, saying it favors big farms at the expense of others. The residents said the breaks for agriculture deprived them of their downstream water rights.
But the court, which originally ruled on the case last July, said the residents had not proven their case, even after the court reheard the facts earlier this year. The court said the law had not hurt anyone by depriving them of water.
Those suing to overturn the state’s surface water law — and exemptions for big farms — “have not made any claim that is ripe for judicial determination,’’ the court said.
Wednesday’s ruling is not necessarily unexpected. It’s not typical for the Supreme Court to reverse itself after making a ruling, although mega-farm opponents held out hope that it would do so this year. The court held a hearing on the case in January.
Amy Armstrong, an attorney representing the residents, said she was disappointed in the ruling.
“This is absolutely a bad thing,’’ said Armstrong, an attorney with the S.C. Environmental Law Project. “What this essentially did is it puts off for another day the dilemma of the state’s massive giveaway of public trust resources, in this case the water.’’
Industrial-scale agricultural interests say the law is fair and they are not depleting rivers. They say that farmers need the water to irrigate crops, which provides food for the table.
At issue is a 2010 surface water law that required anyone taking more than 3 million gallons per month from rivers to get state permits. To get a permit, a person would need to show that the withdrawal would not harm others, among other things.
The law, however, exempted agriculture. Agriculture users only need to say how much water they will take, with limited ability by state regulators to stop the withdrawal.
The law does not affect small farms, but only those taking large amounts of water. That includes mega-farming corporations that have moved to South Carolina from other states and set up shop.
Mega-farmers have been in the spotlight since The State newspaper highlighted issues with the farms' environmental impacts. The newspaper's 2017 series included a detailed look at how South Carolina's river withdrawal law works. The issue of mega-farms has been of particular concern in the Edisto River basin between Columbia and Aiken.