Legislation introduced to protect rivers

First Byline: 
Jonathan Vickery - Staff Writer

In an effort to preserve the S.C.'s water resources such as the Edisto River, Barnwell County's state senator has filed legislation aimed at tightening regulations on surface water withdrawals.
Democratic Senator Brad Hutto, along with several co-sponsors, filed Senate Bill 970, the "Surface Water Stewardship Act." It was introduced and referred to the Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources Jan. 23.
Under the bill, surface-water users must receive a permit from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) if they plan to take 5 percent of a river's safe yield and 425 million gallons each month.
Current law, passed in 2010, requires anyone withdrawing more than three millions gallons a month to get a permit from DHEC. However, agricultural operations are exempt under the law from the permitting, registering and reporting requirements, such as giving the public a chance to voice their opinion before approval, according to the law.
Sen. Hutto's bill was prompted by public concerns over DHEC giving Walther Farms, a mega potato farm, permission to withdraw 805 million gallons a month out of the South Fork of the Edisto - approximately six billion gallons annually - for a new Aiken County farm. Walther Farms was seeking another three billion gallons a year for a Barnwell County farm, though the registration has not been approved by DHEC yet.
Friends of the Edisto (FRED), a non-profit organization seeking to protect the river, along with many others who have been vocal on social media and during a meeting with DHEC earlier this month, are concerned about the withdrawal amount and that the public was not told beforehand. DHEC said they were not required to inform the public and seek their opinion since farms are exempt from the portion of the law requiring such things.
DHEC officials have said the river has more than enough water to accommodate the withdrawals.
The amount for the Aiken farm is approximately 14 percent of the estimated safe yield, according to the document where DHEC granted the withdrawal. DHEC determines a safe yield by calculating the difference between mean annual daily flow and 20 percent of the mean annual flow.
FRED filed a petition with the state's Administrative Law Court in December. The petition asks the court to prevent any withdrawals until a hearing can be held, but ultimately wants the court to reverse DHEC's decision or at least decrease the amount. A hearing was supposed to be held this week, but court officials said it has been cancelled.
Walther Farms has responded with a motion asking the court to dismiss the petition, saying they have followed the law. They ask for an expedited hearing since they are trying to plant their crop in March and have already taken actions to prepare for this - cleared land, constructed the intake and pump station to withdraw water, hired employees, and purchased equipment and supplies.
While the court case is not resolved, Walther Farms has offered FRED and other conservation groups concerned about its plans to cuts withdrawals in half for the Aiken farm and abandon plans to take river water for the Barnwell farm. Instead, they will use groundwater to make up the difference, something they also propose using when the river level is low, said S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers. The company will also install a flow meter to monitor withdrawal amounts.