Water-siphoning farms in SC spark lawsuit

Industrial-scale farms that use billions of gallons of river water to irrigate crops are at the center of a lawsuit by riverside property owners who are seeking to overturn a major section of South Carolina’s 2010 water withdrawal law.

Landowners who filed suit say the law allows farms to take water from rivers at the expense of users downstream. The water law was written to stop unchecked siphoning from rivers, but it allows less oversight of agriculture than other water users, such as industries.

In seeking to throw out exemptions for agriculture in the law, the suit also requests unspecified compensation for riverfront landowners in Bamberg, Darlington and Greenville counties for what they say is the loss of their water rights.

This month’s lawsuit highlights the growing tension between big farms and others who rely on rivers for drinking water, industrial uses and recreation, including fishing and kayaking. The suit is believed to be the first direct challenge to the 2010 law.

Major farms say they need water to produce the food people eat, such as potatoes and corn, and some flexibility in the law is needed to accommodate agriculture. But downstream users say massive withdrawals – if not regulated properly – could deplete rivers as agriculture relies more heavily on irrigation, rather than rainfall.

Ben Williamson, an organic farmer who owns 1,500 acres along Black Creek near Darlington, said he worries that the dark river near his home will suffer if industrial-size farms increasingly target the waterway upstream. But other rivers are at risk because the 2010 law is too weak, he said.

“This will hurt agriculture, industry and quality of life if a few people are allowed to suck it all up,’’ Williamson said.

Williamson is one of the five property owners suing to negate agricultural exemptions in the water law. Others include James J. Jowers Sr. of Bamberg County and Greenville County residents Melanie and Anthony Ruhlman and Andrew Anastos. The suit specifically names the North Saluda River in Greenville County, Black Creek in Darlington County and the Little Salkehatchie River in Bamberg County as waterways of concern.

Prior to passage of the 2010 law, landowners along rivers “had equal property rights in consuming that water,” according to the Sept. 4 lawsuit, filed by the S.C. Environmental Law Project. “After the act, agricultural users have far superior rights.’’

Under the existing law, farms don’t need permits to take major amounts of water from rivers, unlike industries and other property owners. Farms only need to notify the state and go through a limited review to siphon out river water. No public notice is required.

Those exemptions sparked a public outcry last winter from outdoorsmen, environmentalists and small farmers after people learned that a large potato farm planned to take up to 9.6 billion gallons annually from a narrow stretch of the Edisto River basin. Hundreds turned out at a special meeting to protest the law, complaining that it gives big farms a right to deplete rivers forever.

Despite efforts to tighten the rules for farms, the Legislature failed to do so last spring. The major concern had been mega-farms, not small family growing operations.

The suit, which names the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control as defendant, said the law is unconstitutional because it doesn’t treat all river users fairly. It seeks to block future agricultural registrations. A DHEC spokesman declined comment on the suit.

The Farm Bureau, one of the state’s most politically powerful organizations, opposed efforts to change the state water law last spring, unleashing an aggressive media campaign. Bureau spokesman Reggie Hall said Tuesday that farmers need a constant supply of water at certain times of the year.

“Once a seed is in the ground and the plant begins to grow it has got to be nurtured and watered ... to provide a harvest that the farmer has invested in so the farmer can provide food and make a living,’’ Hall said.

Farms across the state have for years used rivers and groundwater. But the concern centers on future withdrawals that could deplete water supplies, particularly during times of drought. That’s been an issue this summer, particularly on some rivers. The Edisto and Salkehatchie river basins in the lower part of South Carolina have been the driest this year, experiencing consistently low stream flows, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

The Edisto River basin potato farm was the first to notify the state of its planned withdrawals under the 2010 water law. Since 2010, four farms have notified DHEC of their plans to withdraw water.

One, a turf farm in Orangeburg County, plans to take up to 180 million gallons a year from a creek that local residents say is even smaller than the South Fork of the Edisto, where the potato farm is located.

Melanie Ruhlman, who lives along the North Saluda River north of Greenville, said she joined the lawsuit to prevent large-scale agricultural withdrawals from one day lowering water levels in the rocky, mountain-fed river.

Ruhlman and her family spend many weekends kayaking, swimming and wading in the North Saluda, located near the base of the southern Appalachians.

The law “needs to be more fair and in line with how farming practices have changed from small family operations to those that are more industrialized,’’ said Ruhlman, who lives in Marietta. “This could be a future threat.’’

Amy Armstrong, a lawyer representing the landowners, said the suit seeks compensation from the state for taking away the riverfront water rights. It’s an unusual tactic typically relied on by developers seeking to escape regulation. In this case, the real goal is to strike down provisions of the law that treat farms more leniently than others, she said.