Politics & Government

Water-sucking farms draw scrutiny in Lexington County

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.

With expansive farms stretching across its landscape, Lexington County uses more groundwater each year to irrigate thirsty crops than most parts of South Carolina.

But all of the pumping in Lexington County has contributed to a 5- to 10-foot drop in groundwater levels since 2001, and regulators say that needs to stop.

After months of discussion, the state is moving to limit unchecked groundwater withdrawals in Lexington and six other counties, where pumping by large farms affects water supplies on which many in the rapidly growing region rely.

State regulators say their plan to oversee major withdrawals could protect drinking water supplies for thousands of S.C. residents. In Lexington, for instance, public water systems in several communities — including Gilbert and Gaston — rely on groundwater for their residents.

The proposal, however, makes some Lexington County farmers nervous.

They question whether the county’s groundwater is in as much jeopardy as state regulators say. Others want any regulations that are enacted to be reasonable.

“From what little bit I know, I don’t see any need to regulate any further,” said Howard Rawl, whose family-owned farm corporation is a major water user. “I don’t see it as a big concern anytime soon.”

Frances Price, a goat farmer from Gilbert, said she doesn’t want controls that unfairly would restrict agriculture.

“There need to be some guidelines, and it’s something that everybody needs to follow, but we want reasonable regulations,” said Price, who was among about 50 people who attended a meeting Tuesday night in Lexington to learn more about the water plan.

“You need to remember that while everybody is trying to make a living, agriculture is the thing that provides food and fiber and shelter for all of us. It’s very important.’’

1,000 farms in Lexington

With about 1,000 farms, Lexington is one of the state’s most productive agricultural counties. The county has more than 100,000 acres of farmland, federal statistics show.

The proposed state rules would apply only to farms, industries and utilities that draw large amounts of groundwater. Small farms would not be affected.

Regulators propose requiring that anyone wanting to withdraw at least 3 million gallons a month of groundwater first obtain a state permit. Now, farms, industries and public utilities can use as much groundwater as they want without state permission.

Permits, good for five years, would be issued only after a farm or industrial user showed the Department of Health and Environmental Control that the withdrawal would not hurt public water supplies.

In evaluating whether to grant permission, the environmental agency could look at the types of crops that would be grown and the length of the irrigation season. If the agency determines the amount to be withdrawn is too much, it could turn down the permit or require a farm to scale back the amount of water it planned to use.

Some critics say the proposed tighter controls are not tough enough. Others say the regulations would provide the public notice of proposed major groundwater withdrawals and offer other safeguards that now do not exist in the seven-county area. The Edisto Riverkeeper group favors groundwater controls in the seven counties, as do many conservationists and community residents in eastern Aiken County.

“It’s not a solve-all solution, but it’s being pro active,’’ said Meg Morgan Adams, the Edisto Riverkeeper group’s director.

DHEC plans another meeting in Aiken County next month on the proposed regulations before holding a formal public hearing this spring in Columbia. After that, the agency’s board would decide whether to adopt the groundwater rules, officials said.

The S.C. Farm Bureau, one of the most influential organizations at the State House, has not formally taken a position.

Billions of gallons used by farms

The Department of Health and Environmental Control proposed the groundwater regulations — the first for Lexington and neighboring counties — after The State newspaper reported last year on the growing number of mega-farms that have located between Aiken and Lexington since 2013.

Large out-of-state agribusinesses have acquired 10,000 acres in Aiken County, cleared forests and established growing operations that dwarf the average S.C. farm, The State reported.

In Aiken County, many residents’ concerns center on the amount of water the big farms are using to irrigate crops. Since 2015, out-of-state agribusinesses have sucked up more than 2 billion gallons of Aiken groundwater, an amount larger than some small water systems have used.

Farmers, however, historically have used more groundwater in Lexington County than in Aiken County, according to DHEC.

In 2015, Lexington ranked fourth in the state in the amount of groundwater used for irrigation. Aiken ranked 14th that year.

The biggest Lexington County groundwater user in 2015, Walter P. Rawl and Sons/Rawl Farms, withdrew 1.8 billion gallons. That was the third largest single amount of water used for irrigation in the state that year.

In 2016, Rawl withdrew 2.1 billion gallons of groundwater, more than some community water systems, DHEC said. Overall, farms took 3.2 billion gallons of water in Lexington County that year, making irrigation the single largest source of groundwater withdrawals.

Statewide, as much as a third of the approximately 90 billion gallons of groundwater used each year is because of agricultural withdrawals.

Water levels down 5-10 feet since 2001

DHEC data show dwindling groundwater levels in major aquifers, pockets of saturated soil that lie below the earth’s surface, throughout the seven-county region in western South Carolina that includes Aiken, Lexington and Orangeburg counties.

Water levels have dropped 10 feet in one of the deepest aquifers beneath Lexington County since 2001, according to a 2017 DHEC report. That report also says water levels have dropped 5 feet in the next deepest aquifer.

During Tuesday night’s meeting in Lexington, DHEC officials said the groundwater regulations are worth considering as the seven-county area grows, water levels decline and people demand more water.

“There is a general trend of increased use since the ’80s,” DHEC regulator Amira Berezowska told the Lexington crowd Tuesday night.