Cindi Ross Scoppe

Whose water is it, anyway?

An irrigation intake pump sits on the bank of the Edisto River, the longest, free-flowing blackwater river in North America. Aiken and Barnwell county residents are concerned that mega-farms will lower the river to dangerous levels.
An irrigation intake pump sits on the bank of the Edisto River, the longest, free-flowing blackwater river in North America. Aiken and Barnwell county residents are concerned that mega-farms will lower the river to dangerous levels. tdominick@thestate.com

LET’S PRETEND that clear-cutting more than 6,000 acres of forestland in the past four years to make way for the new mega-farms isn’t causing all those other problems — destroying wildlife habitat, forcing the neighbors who were there first to endure nauseating odors, bothersome crop-dusting planes and smoky skies

Instead, let’s just focus on what the mega-farms are doing to our water. How they’re draining our rivers, how they’re causing precipitous drops in groundwater levels, how those same neighbors’ wells are running dry. Because while I have a problem with a new neighbor ruining the quality of life for people who have been there for years, or generations (just as I have a problem with new neighbors complaining about the smelly farms that were there first), you can argue over whether that’s the state’s business.

The water we all have to share clearly is the state’s business.

In 2013, Walther Farms moved into South Carolina and received state permission to withdraw up to 9.6 billion gallons of water annually from the South Fork of the Edisto River, a narrow stream that critics say couldn’t survive those withdrawals during periods of drought. And we learned that our laws are not adequate when it comes to sharing our rivers.

Most businesses must get permission from DHEC to withdraw more than 3 million gallons per month from the state’s streams, rivers and lakes, in a public process that involves reviewing "the anticipated effect" the withdrawal would have on fish, navigation, wildlife and recreation.

But farms only have to notify DHEC of their plans for large withdrawals; regulators are required to approve those withdrawals based almost entirely on a mathematical formula of river flow, in an internal process that critics say relies too heavily on averages.

Walther Farms eventually reached an out-of-court agreement with environmentalists to withdraw no more than about 3 billion gallons a year — which demonstrates how different farm withdrawal permits might be if state law required farms to consider alternatives that posed a smaller danger to our resources, while still allowing them the resources they need to operate.

The good news is that Walther Farms isn’t using nearly as much surface water as we feared: just a little more than 1 billion gallons a year.

The bad news, as The State’s Sammy Fretwell reported in a must-read series last month, is that Walther was just the camel’s nose under the tent. Since it came to South Carolina, Walther and other out-of-state companies have purchased a total of 10,000 acres in the Edisto Basin between Aiken and Columbia; at least 6,000 acres have been clear cut.

__________

Read Sammy Fretwell’s series:

Mega-farms bring odors, cleared forests, huge water demands to rural SC

Thirsty mega-farms siphon S.C.’s rivers as state watches

Faucets go dry near SC mega-farms

Thousands of acres of SC forests fall to make way for mega-farms

Upstate company has sold thousands of S.C. acres to mega-farms

__________

And surface water withdrawals aren’t the only problem. Statewide, farms account for about a third of all the groundwater that is withdrawn annually. Walther and the Woody Agribusiness Group, which Walther recruited to the state, are using another billion gallons a year in groundwater — far more than many public water companies use. Near one Woody farm, officials recorded an unprecedented 22-foot drop in groundwater levels last year — up to 10 times previous highs. Neighbors report wells running dry.

The 22-foot drop turned out to be temporary, but it could happen again. And even temporary can be painful. Any neighbors who have to invest in new wells or live on bottled water must cover the cost themselves because their thirsty neighbors took their water. Sometimes it’s other farmers who suffer, as mega-farms suck up the groundwater they relied on.

I don’t want to get into the business of rating farms good or bad based on what they produce; I did, after all, grow up on a tobacco farm. But when you’re pumping a billion gallons of water out of the ground and the rivers every year in order to make potato chips, and you’re hurting other farmers in the process, you forfeit some of that “feeding America” moral high ground.

The fact that the owners of the new farms are from out of state should not make a difference in how we feel about them, or how we change our laws; some longtime S.C. farmers also use huge amounts of water. And there is nothing to indicate that any of the farmers have acted in bad faith.

The problem is our laws.

State agencies theoretically have the ability to limit surface water withdrawals, although not enough. But outside of a few coastal counties, the state places no limits on the amount of groundwater that farms (or anyone else) can use. Just as we shouldn’t give mega-farms a near-complete pass on using our river water wisely, we can no longer afford to take a laissez-faire approach toward anyone’s use of our groundwater.

It’s too late for the Legislature to do anything this year to protect our water. But it’s not too soon to make a commitment to act next year to protect our water. It’s not too soon to start working on how to follow through on that commitment.

We don’t need to label the new mega-farmers as bad people to decide that we have bad laws, or at least laws that allow them to do things that we never anticipated.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

  Comments