Ground water not regulated, Megafarms siphon billions of gallons from wells near Edisto river
Air whistled through the kitchen faucet when Earldell Trowell turned on the tap one morning last summer.
On July 4, one of the hottest days of the year, she had no water. None in the kitchen, none in the bathrooms, none at a spigot outside.
It would take a week, $150 and the help of neighbors to get water flowing again to her mobile home in rural Aiken County.
But today, as summer nears and the weather warms, Trowell worries that she could again face a water outage. Her concern is a mega corn farm that opened last year, just down the road from her property.
In its first year of operation, the farm pumped nearly 700 million gallons of groundwater to irrigate crops, contributing to what federal scientists said was a 22-foot drop in groundwater levels near Trowell’s home. The extent of the drop is unprecedented, local utilities say.
“None of this happened until the farm came in,” said Trowell, a 54-year-old widow who lives on a fixed income.
Trowell’s troubles occurred as areas of her county transition from small farms to industrial-scale growing operations – and those larger farms face no restrictions on the amount of groundwater they can use.
Thirteen years ago, state planners recommended that rules be adopted to limit groundwater withdrawals and control irrigation from Aiken through Lexington and Richland counties. But the state Department of Health and Environmental Control didn’t think withdrawals in the state’s midsection were enough of a threat to justify regulation.
Now, industrial-grade farms are taking plenty of water. Since 2015, out-of-state farmers have withdrawn about 2.1 billion gallons of groundwater in the Windsor area. The amount exceeds what some local utilities typically use to supply drinking water to customers.
Walther Farms, headquartered in Michigan, withdrew 1.2 billion gallons during 2015 and 2016, according to DHEC. The Woody agribusiness group of Texas and New Mexico siphoned 912 million gallons last summer, including 700 million gallons for the big corn farm near Trowell’s home.
Overall, Walther ranked seventh-highest in South Carolina in the amount of groundwater used for irrigation that year, according to DHEC.
While the withdrawals are significant, they’re not the largest in the state. One farm in Calhoun County, Haigler Farms, sucked up 2.3 billion gallons of groundwater in 2015, state regulators say. Overall, farms siphon about one-third of the 86 billion gallons of groundwater used statewide in a year’s time.
In the Edisto Basin, however, people are noticing groundwater problems.
At least eight people have complained about wells sputtering or going dry, although the specific cause of their problems and Trowell’s hasn’t been determined. But public water suppliers worry about how future withdrawals by farms will affect their ability to provide drinking water. Local utility officials tracking the issue say they don’t remember a decline like the one last summer. Federal scientists are investigating the cause of the groundwater drops to learn more about how farms might have affected groundwater levels.
Jim Landmeyer and Bruce Campbell, groundwater experts with the U.S. Geological Survey, said it’s likely the Woody corn farm contributed to the drop in water levels nearby. Records show the company installed a half-dozen production wells.
“I think they probably did all of it,’’ Campbell said of the corn farm. “I don’t think anybody would dispute that. You have that many big (wells) like they’ve got right there, all close together, you are going to generate a water-level decline.’’
The drop in water levels was temporary, but residents and others worry about what might happen this summer.
Trowell, a peppery but good-natured Mississippi native, said big farms should realize how they can affect others. To get her water flowing again, Trowell was forced to have the pump in her well lowered — at her own expense, she said. Her brother-in-law and friends helped out.
After last summer’s troubles, Trowell said she appreciates how precious water is.
“I had to buy water and get water from my neighbors and my kids,’’ Trowell said. “It was hard. I took the water for granted, but when I didn’t have none, it was a hurting feeling.’’
Efforts to reach officials with the Woody companies were unsuccessful. The Woodys are farmers who at one time grew corn, potatoes and other crops in eastern New Mexico. The family also has farmed in west Texas. Woody family members are listed as registered agents for a handful of companies, including Colt Farms Inc., BC Farms of South Carolina Inc. and Outback Farms, according to the S.C. secretary of state’s office.
Jeremy Walther, an executive with Walther Farms in South Carolina, said his company recruited the Woodys to South Carolina as a partner to rotate crops with.
Walther said his company is a responsible user of water and the Woodys run sustainable farms. Among other things, Walther Farms has taken steps to make water use more efficient by discontinuing water cannons to spray fields, he said. Walther said his family-owned corporation is a “poster child’’ of responsible farming.
In the past four years, the Woody group and Walther Farms have purchased nearly 10,000 acres for extensive vegetable fields in a small stretch of the Edisto River Basin in Aiken and Barnwell counties. Put in perspective, the amount of land acquired is about 20 times greater in size than the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia. About 6,000 acres are known to have been cleared. In some cases, fields approaching 1,000 acres can be found. The average farm in South Carolina is about 200 acres.
State oversight of groundwater use in the upper Edisto River basin is lacking for a simple reason: DHEC has been reluctant to push for regulation, said Bud Badr, a retired state Department of Natural Resources scientist whose agency for years recommended requiring permits for major groundwater withdrawals.
South Carolina’s 2004 state water plan, developed by the DNR at Badr’s direction, said the entire area from Columbia to the coast needed oversight. But today, only half of the 28 coastal plain counties have been designated for regulation. Those areas are near Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Florence and Hilton Head Island. Interior counties, including Richland, Lexington, Aiken, Kershaw, Calhoun and Orangeburg, are not regulated.
DHEC has said it found no measurable signs that groundwater was under stress in the inner coastal plain near Aiken and Barnwell – but not taking action was a mistake, Badr said. Groundwater regulations should have been adopted years ago, said Badr, DNR’s former hydrology chief.
“It is long overdue,’’ he said. “If that program was in (place), we would never have a disagreement on those big farms.’’
The 2004 state water plan said South Carolina needs regulations “to ensure the long-term sustainability” of groundwater.
Only now is the state considering regulation of groundwater in the Aiken area. DHEC, at the request last year of Aiken County Council, began work on a plan to regulate withdrawals. The changes could require permits and justification that withdrawals are needed for those wanting to siphon more than 3 million gallons of groundwater per month.
But it could be months before the agency decides whether withdrawals should be limited. Opposition by farms to the plan could make it difficult to approve.
“Technical data is being compiled and evaluated’’ to determine if regulation is worthwhile, DHEC spokeswoman Jennifer Read said. “A report will be generated outlining this data within the next few months and shared with stakeholders to gather additional input.’’
Read said Monday that DHEC expects to unveil a report on the issue next month.
Harry Ott, president of the influential S.C. Farm Bureau Federation, said his group will support withdrawal limits for Aiken County but only if the agency’s research shows a need.
In areas with withdrawal regulations, anyone seeking large amounts of groundwater would have to list the amount to be taken and explain how that might affect the environment. DHEC can ask for an array of information, including what types of crops would be irrigated, how much water would be used and the length of the growing season.
When considering a groundwater permit application, DHEC looks at how the withdrawal would affect public water supplies. Permits are for five years and public notice is required.
The system isn’t foolproof. Issues pop up sometimes about whether the withdrawal regulation program is strong enough, but many folks say it’s better than no regulation.
Virtually all of Aiken County’s major water agencies rely on groundwater to supply thousands of homes.
But last year, the amount of water pumped by the Walther and Woody farms was more than what some community water districts used.
The Breezy Hill Water District withdrew 451 million gallons of groundwater to supply its 6,200 customers, the district’s Charles Hilton said. In comparison, the Walther and Woody farming operations collectively withdrew more than 1 billion gallons of groundwater, DHEC records show.
“One billion gallons is a lot of water,’’ Hilton said.
Among the districts most concerned about irrigation is the Montmorenci-Couchton Water and Sewer District, which serves about 1,500 customers where the mega-farms have located. The Montmorenci district withdrew about 100 million gallons of groundwater last year to supply customers.
Sherry Nestor, the Montmorenci district’s general manager, said a more than 20-foot drop in groundwater levels last summer was the most pronounced that she’s seen in two decades of working for the water agency. Previously, the biggest groundwater drop was 2 to 3 feet, Nestor said.
“We are just concerned because they weren’t at full harvesting’’ last year, Nestor said of the Woodys’ corn farming operation. “What is full harvesting going to do to shallow wells? That’s why we have to watch. We really don’t have any back history on this.’’
Jeremy Walther questioned how significant the impact of farm irrigation could be on water levels. With his company, Walther said irrigation for potatoes ends in mid-summer.
“I’m not even irrigating past the first of July,’’ he said. “So part of the year, we are not using any water to irrigate potatoes.’’
DHEC records show that the company’s largest groundwater withdrawals last summer were in June at 168 million gallons. Another 105 million gallons were withdrawn in July, according to water use data provided by DHEC. Walther said the company also has grown spinach, sweet potatoes, black beans and broccoli.
Walther Farms has about 13,000 acres of farms in states from Colorado to south Georgia. It provides potatoes for the Frito Lay company, as well as grocery stores. The Woodys grow corn for chicken feed in South Carolina, Jeremy Walther said in a Facebook post this week.
What’s occurring near Windsor isn’t unique to eastern Aiken and Barnwell counties. With aquifers diminishing in parts of the West and irrigation dwindling in that region, irrigation is on the rise in the Southeast as a way to ensure crops don’t wither and die during dry spells.
In Aiken County, the U.S. Geological Survey is studying the impact of agricultural withdrawals on groundwater supplies as part of a larger investigation of the area’s groundwater. Agency researchers say they hope their work will determine the groundwater challenges facing Aiken County.
Last year, researchers noted water levels dropped in a deep well they tested at an elementary school near the Woodys’ Outback/BC corn farm. Since most private wells are in a shallower aquifer and agricultural withdrawals extended into a deeper aquifer, the geological survey plans more extensive testing this year.
For now, the good news is that water levels rose after the irrigation ramped down last summer, researchers said. Earldell Trowell hopes it stays that way. .
“I’m not against farming. I’m against people that come in and just totally run an irrigation system 24 hours and not considering the people that have wells — that they need water, too,’’ Trowell said.
Reach Sammy Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.
▪ Out-of-state corporations have bought up 10,000 acres in the Edisto River Basin during the past four years.
▪ About 6,000 acres have been cleared of trees to make way for vegetable farms.
▪ The farms collectively used 2 billion gallons of water last year.
▪ Some nearby residents complain about wells running low or dry.
▪ South Carolina puts almost no limits on the amount of water such farms can withdraw from rivers and groundwater.
Wednesday: The river flow of the Edisto River dropped last summer near the mega-farms
Thursday: How the mega-farms were able to buy land
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