Regulators agreed Thursday to crack down on mega-farms whose thirst for water is creating problems in a seven-county region of South Carolina that also needs the water for drinking.
The board of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control voted unanimously to require mega-farms, big industries and other major water users to get state permission before withdrawing large amounts of groundwater in the seven counties.
Unlike many parts of eastern South Carolina, there now are no limits on how much groundwater can be withdrawn in the heavily agricultural area. The new rules, requiring state approval, would apply to any major water user. But big farming operations are a key reason that groundwater levels are declining from the Georgia line to Lexington, according to DHEC.
The DHEC board’s decision is significant because it will help protect groundwater from unchecked withdrawals in an area with an increasing need for water, supporters of the rules said.
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Big farms are moving into South Carolina, as are industries. Both need water. But so do established farms, long-time homeowners, existing businesses and utilities. DHEC’s action is intended to make sure those needing water don’t take too much at the expense of others.
“Populations are increasing, irrigated acres are increasing,’’’ DHEC groundwater specialist Alex Butler told the board. “We have a lot more demands on the water, and we don’t expect that to stop.’’
The rules, recommended by DHEC staff 18 months ago, followed The State’s series on mega-farms. Those rules would require DHEC to review water-withdrawal plans and issue permits to anyone wanting to siphon large amounts of groundwater.
The rules won’t take effect for months but, eventually, would expand state oversight of major water withdrawals in the area from Aiken to Lexington. Many existing users are expected to receive permits for the amount of water they now use, DHEC officials said.
“We believe this is the best way to manage the groundwater resources in that area for the long term,’’ DHEC board chairman Mark Elam said in a statement.
Underground water levels have dropped from 5 feet to 15 feet in the area in recent years, according to DHEC. During the summer, when big farms irrigate heavily, water levels temporarily have dropped up to 40 feet in some places, DHEC’s Butler said.
Supporters of the rules, including the state’s largest environmental groups and residents who live near mega-farms, urged DHEC’s board to take action before groundwater levels drop any more.
In addition to Aiken and Lexington, the area that would fall under the new restrictions includes Orangeburg, Calhoun, Allendale, Bamberg and Barnwell counties. And the plan drew support from communities in the Edisto River basin, which have expressed frustration with industrial-scale agricultural operations.
Of the 76 public comments DHEC received before Thursday’s vote, all but two endorsed the new rules. The S.C. Farm Bureau, and the Palmetto Agribusiness Council opposed the rules, saying they would be a burden on farmers.
At a hearing that drew about 100 people prior to the vote, Farm Bureau president Harry Ott said more scientific information is needed before imposing groundwater restrictions.
With 100,000 members, the Farm Bureau is one of the most influential advocacy groups in South Carolina.
“If these regulations are put in place, (they will) be used as a tool to keep farmers from farming,’’ said Ott, a former state legislator.
However, almost all of the 25 speakers at the pre-vote hearing supported the water-use restrictions.
Representatives of the Aiken County Council, Bamberg County Council, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the city of Aiken, as well as state Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, were among those speaking in favor of the restrictions.
Local government officials said they worry that, without restrictions, they will lose the groundwater that water utilities use to supply their customers.
Bamberg County Councilman Trent Kinard said ever-dwindling groundwater levels could hurt the Edisto River and its tributaries, which get much of their flow from groundwater. The Edisto is a major source of recreation and at the heart of the ACE Basin nature preserve.
Earldell Trowell, who lives near a mega-corn farm in the Edisto River basin, said she knows first-hand what it is like to lose water. Trowell recounted how her well dried up several years ago, forcing her to spend money to sink it deeper into the ground.
““We need new rules so we can stop mega-farmers from (destroying) our water supply,’’ Trowell said.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources called for water-use restrictions in the area in 2004. However, DHEC did not act. The Charleston, Beaufort, Myrtle Beach and Florence areas already have groundwater restrictions.
Meg Morgan Adams, the Edisto riverkeeper, said the state’s groundwater-withdrawal program still needs strengthening. But, she added, Thursday’s vote “is the first step we need to take to protect our groundwater resources.’’
The new rules would not apply immediately to new farms or the more than 300 existing farming operations that now withdraw large amounts of groundwater in the seven counties.
First, the state must develop a plan on how to control groundwater withdrawals.. That could include getting input from local officials on whether to approve permits.
After that plan is developed, farms that use 3 million gallons or more per month would need permits from DHEC.
DHEC never has rejected an application for a permit in other parts of the state. But regulators say their oversight has helped limit unchecked withdrawals of groundwater.
Industrial-scale crop farms are nothing new to South Carolina.
Lexington County, for example, has large established mega-farms that grow everything from corn to collards. But concern about mega-crop farms has grown dramatically in the past five years as out-of-state operations have set up shop in adjacent Aiken County.
Many residents say the mega-farms take a major toll on natural resources but produce few jobs.
The mega-farms say they have done nothing wrong.
Representatives of Walther Farms, a Michigan corporation that grows potatoes for Frito Lay, have said they just are trying to make a living under the rules established by the state. Walther opened more than five years ago in the Wagener-Windsor areas of Aiken and Barnwell counties.