Full crop of residents discuss Edisto concerns

First Byline: 
Jonathan Vickery - Staff Writer

Amid chilly temperatures outside, emotions heated up inside the Aiken Electric Cooperative as a standing room only crowd expressed concerns over a mega potato farm's plans to siphon 9.6 billion gallons from the Edisto River.
Barnwell resident Larry Price said Walther Farms isn't "doing nothing but raping this river." As a freelance nature photographer, Price spends a lot of time along the Edisto.
Price was one of dozens who commented and asked questions during the Jan. 7 public forum.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has come under pressure in recent weeks after approving an application from Walther Farms to withdraw more than six billion gallons annually from the river to irrigate a new potato farm in Aiken County. A second application to withdraw an additional three billion gallons for a farm downstream in Barnwell County is under review by DHEC.
The state environmental agency held the forum to explain their process for registering agricultural surface water withdrawals under the Surface Water Withdrawal, Permitting, Use, and Reporting Act.
DHEC officials explained their hands are tied because they're simply following the law as it was passed by the state legislature in 2010.
The law requires anyone wishing to withdraw more than three million gallons a month to apply for a permit with DHEC. However, it provides an exemption for "agricultural purposes," such as Walther Farms, from the permitting, registering and reporting requirements. Those requirements include giving the public a chance to voice their opinion before approval, according to the law.
Don Alexander, a Barnwell resident who owns the Edisto Outdoors clothing company, said Walther Farms, which is part of the supply chain for potato chip companies, shouldn't be treated the same as a family farm. DHEC officials said the law doesn't discriminate based on size and "all are considered the same in the eyes of the law."
Alexander added that there needs to be more context to help protect the Edisto. "Our most valuable resource is our water," he concluded.
DHEC officials contended the law is better than nothing, as there were no regulations previously.
DHEC can only modify, revoke or suspend a registration if the withdrawer exceeds the amount they were approved for and cause "detrimental effects" to the environment or human health, explained officials. They said any changes to the law would have to come from lawmakers - several of whom were in attendance.
"I, like you, am concerned about this. The Edisto River is a treasure to all of us," said Rep. Bill Taylor of Aiken to the crowd.
Taylor said the issue needs to be addressed, but it will take time. In the meantime, Taylor said he's spoken with Jason Walther, the farm's owner, about installing a flow meter to report exactly how many gallons they are withdrawing. He said Walther seemed "very open" to the idea, but has yet to commit.
Sen. Brad Hutto, who represents Barnwell County, was also at the meeting. In a phone interview, he told The People-Sentinel that he is concerned about this issue and doesn't believe anyone who helped craft the law "quite envisioned anything of this magnitude coming along." He hopes to strengthen the law by looking at flow limits in order to "adequately protect the river," he said.
Reps. Bakari Sellers and Lonnie Hosey, whose districts cover Barnwell County, also agree they need to revisit this law. "Water is more beneficial to us than the potato farm," said Hosey.
While legislative changes could take time, a conservation group filed a petition last month with the S.C. Administrative Law Court seeking "administrative review" of DHEC's decision to approve Walther Farms' registration. It seeks to stop any withdrawals until a hearing can be held and requests the court reverse DHEC's decision or revise the amount.
"The Edisto River is our legacy. It was given to us by God almighty," said Tim Rogers, president of Friends of the Edisto River, the group that filed the petition.