Thirsty mega-farms, industries never turned down when seeking to siphon groundwater

How billions of gallons of ground water are pumped from the aquifer by megafarms in South Carolina

This is how ground water is pumped from the aquifer by Megafarmers in South Carolina. Pumping water from the aquifer is unregulated by the government in that part of the state.
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This is how ground water is pumped from the aquifer by Megafarmers in South Carolina. Pumping water from the aquifer is unregulated by the government in that part of the state.

It wasn’t easy to find $3,700 for a deeper well, but Chesley Bair said he didn’t have much choice after a hog farm began growing corn near his home.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control gave the nearby farm a permit to siphon up to 36 million gallons of groundwater every year. When the farm started pumping groundwater to irrigate corn, shallow wells began to sputter, including Bair’s, the Dorchester County resident said.

“We called DHEC. They said, ‘He already had a permit, that everything was legal,’ ” Bair said. “They said, ‘There’s nothing you can do.’ 

Bair’s concerns are shared by others, including many residents of the area between Lexington and Aiken, worried about the growth of mega-farms. As DHEC seeks to expand its program that oversees groundwater to central South Carolina from its existing program on the coast, those residents want to know whether the program will protect the water flowing below the surface that feeds their wells.

The oversight program is intended to protect wells that tens of thousands of South Carolinians rely on for drinking water.

But it never has turned down a request by an industry or big farm to withdraw large quantities of groundwater.

Since the groundwater program was started more than 40 years ago, DHEC says it has issued 436 permits for industries, utilities, farms and others to withdraw billions of gallons of groundwater in the areas that the program now regulates — the Lowcountry and Pee Dee regions.

“We’re not in the business of denying permits,” DHEC’s Rob Devlin said.

Instead, DHEC says its groundwater regulations have proven successful — replenishing groundwater supplies throughout the coast, even as the demand for water grows.

Aiken-to-Lexington area to be regulated

If Bair’s case is an example, that’s hard to believe, the Reevesville resident said.

Despite DHEC’s assertion that dry weather caused his community’s wells to sputter, Bair said that never had happened before.

“We had dry weather in the past and never had this problem until this irrigation system went in,” Bair said, referring to the hog and corn farm near his house.

In South Carolina, groundwater is a major source of water for irrigation, industrial processes and public water supplies. Lying deep beneath the surface, groundwater often is easy to reach and contaminant free, making it desirable to use. All told, farms, S.C. industries, utilities and others use about 90 billion gallons a year of groundwater. About a third of the water is used for irrigation, DHEC records show.

The effectiveness of DHEC’s groundwater program is of great interest to some S.C. residents who are battling mega vegetable farms that have opened in the area between Lexington and Aiken.

The department is proposing, for the first time, to regulate groundwater withdrawals by mega-farms and other large water users in a seven-county area from Aiken to Lexington, a plan that many people say is long overdue. The move would follow up on a 14-year-old recommendation by state water resource planners that the entire area from Columbia to the coast should fall under groundwater regulation.

As it stands now, industries, farms and public water suppliers in seven counties from Aiken to Lexington can take unlimited amounts of groundwater, regardless of how it affects others who need it.

In the Windsor area along the Aiken-Barnwell county line, for example, industrial-scale crop farms have siphoned more than 3 billion gallons of groundwater since arriving about five years ago. The farms say they are careful with their water use, but scientists say the drawdowns have contributed to dwindling groundwater levels in the Edisto River basin. The amount withdrawn is more than some community water systems in the area use to supply drinking water.

‘Trying to make sure problems don’t develop’

Complaints about DHEC’s water-protection program are no surprise to the agency.

But the department says its oversight program has worked elsewhere in the state, helping replenish groundwater across South Carolina’s coastal plain, where some counties have been regulated for 40 years.

“We do work on the front end to keep problems from happening,” including trying to reduce the size of withdrawals requested, DHEC hydrologist Alex Butler said. “We are trying to make sure problems don’t develop.”

We do work on the front end to keep problems from happening. We are trying to make sure problems don’t develop.

DHEC hydrologist Alex Butler

Groundwater levels, for instance, have recovered in parts of the Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Moncks Corner and Florence areas since the department began overseeing withdrawals in those areas, according to DHEC. Groundwater levels have risen from 50 to 75 feet, according to DHEC.

On Hilton Head Island, the department required permitted water users to cut their use of groundwater from the area’s aquifer by more than 6 million gallons a day, the agency says.

By monitoring how much water permit holders use, department regulators have succeeded in persuading them to cut the amount of water withdrawn by a total of 13.4 billion gallons over the past decade, Butler said. All told, 109 industries, farms or utilities with DHEC permits have cut their water use, the agency says.

The program requires the public to be notified if a major water withdrawal is planned. It also allows people 30 days to comment on a proposed withdrawal, the department says. The program applies only to those withdrawing more than 3 million gallons a month, or about 100,000 gallons a day.

DHEC says the program gives it the ability to investigate whether industries, farms and utilities are complying with their permits. It also helps businesses or farms that want to sink big wells find the best location — away from others who also rely on groundwater.

“We try as hard as we can to work with everybody,” said Devlin, a veteran groundwater regulator for DHEC. “Our business is to make sure that no wells go in, in our permitted areas, that are adversely affecting anybody — and if they are, that’s when we need to step in do what we need to do.”

Clay Duffie, who heads the Mount Pleasant Water Works, said DHEC’s regulations didn’t force his district to cut back on its groundwater use. Instead, Mount Pleasant increasingly began moving toward using river water before DHEC established a program in the Charleston area.

At the same time, records show DHEC sometimes has let those with withdrawal permits sharply expand the amount of groundwater they siphon.

In one case, a cannery in Florence County increased its groundwater use to 600 million gallons a year, up from 45 million gallons a decade earlier. The company said it was expanding and needed more water.

In another case, a Pee Dee public water supply system tried for eight years to gain approval to withdraw more than 400 million gallons a year before DHEC signed off on the request in 2015. The agency initially said the request was excessive.

‘You have to start somewhere’

Still, Mount Pleasant’s Duffie said the state’s groundwater protection program can help and is needed for the entire coastal plain of South Carolina, including the Aiken-Lexington areas. Aiken County, unlike many in South Carolina, is heavily dependent on groundwater for drinking.

The key to a successful program is community involvement in developing plans once the area is designated for groundwater protection, he said.

DHEC’s plan to regulate groundwater in the seven counties could affect more than 200 industries, farms, water suppliers and others that now must report their water use to the state. Most of those affected would be farms, according to DHEC.

The agency plans a final public meeting on the plan this spring, with the DHEC board making a decision by mid-summer, officials said this week.

I’d like to see a lot more done. We definitely need to do this. Without it, there is nothing. You have to start somewhere.

Aiken lawyer Dione Carroll, who represents a grass-roots citizens group that favors DHEC oversight for seven additional counties, including Aiken and Lexington

Aiken lawyer Dione Carroll, who represents a grass-roots citizens group that favors DHEC oversight for the seven counties, said she is hopeful new regulations will provide some protection for people in her area.

“I’d like to see a lot more done,” Carroll said. But “we definitely need to do this. Without it, there is nothing. You have to start somewhere.”

Protecting SC’s underground water

SC’s environmental agency, the Department of Health and Environmental Control, is proposing to expand its regulation of groundwater use to include a half-dozen counties in the Aiken to Lexington area


Permits that DHEC has issued to Lowcountry and Pee Dee area farms, industries and others that use more than 3 million gallons a month of groundwater over the last 40 years


Permits that DHEC has issued in the past 10 years along the coast and in the Pee Dee


Permitted water users in those areas that have cut, by a total of 13.4 billion gallons, their groundwater consumption over the past 10 years

50-75 feet

The level that groundwater has risen in some Lowcountry and Pee Dee areas since DHEC started regulating groundwater in the 1970s


Counties that DHEC wants to expand groundwater regulation to — Aiken, Allendale, Barnwell, Bamberg, Calhoun, Lexington and Orangeburg; more than 200 industries, farms, water suppliers and others in the area could be affected