The South Fork of the Edisto River recently was included on a list of the nation's 10 most endangered waterways by American Rivers, a national environmental group. And it might actually have belonged on that list had not a dispute over the withdrawal of water from the river been satisfactorily resolved earlier this year. As it is, the listing is misleading as to the actual protections enjoyed on the Edisto - and to the efforts that brought about those safeguards.
The agreement reached with Walther Farms includes reducing by 50 percent the projected volume of water to be taken from the Edisto for farm irrigation, limiting the further harvesting of hardwoods along the river, putting an agricultural easement on the land, and paying for the installation and operation of a continual flow monitor in the river. Walther Farms agreed to use groundwater to irrigate during periods of low flow. It also has provided substantial setbacks along the river.
Indeed, the farm owners went beyond what they would have been required to do as an industry, for which withdrawals and discharges are regulated.
Farming activities are exempt from state regulations designed to protect the state's waterways and their marine life when river levels fall. And American Rivers does make a general case to apply more safeguards to state rivers used for farm irrigation.
"This had a happy ending," said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League. "There was good faith exhibited on both sides. The dispute was resolved to the satisfaction of everyone." Mr. Beach helped negotiate the settlement.
Tim Rogers, president of Friends of the Edisto, said of the agreement, in comments to the Aiken Standard: "They [Walther Farms] have pledged to be good neighbors and work with their neighbors to help conserve our precious natural resources. Trust takes time to build. But I have become convinced of their sincerity, and I am impressed by their professional skills." Mr. Rogers, however, says the state needs stronger regulations to forestall any similar problems with agricultural withdrawals.
Friends of the Edisto led the effort for greater protections for the South Fork of the river, filing suit against Walther Farms. The lawsuit was dropped with approval of the settlement.
"This is a river everyone loves," Mr. Beach said. In fact, he describes it as "one of the most protected rivers in America."
For example, the Edisto River has 40 miles of conservation easements along its banks, thanks to contributions of MeadWestvaco and individual landowners. Those easements protect it from encroaching development in perpetuity.
Meanwhile, SCE&G, under pressure from the league and residents of Colleton and Dorchester counties, abandoned plans for an ash pond near the Edisto. And the utility went further, agreeing to remove ash from an existing pond and put it at a site where it doesn't threaten to contaminate the river.
Protecting the river where it enters the celebrated ACE Basin has been accomplished through a broad-based initiative of private landowners, land trusts and conservation groups, including the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited, state and federal wildlife and natural resource agencies.
There are many environmental hazards that require close attention, regulation and mitigation throughout South Carolina, particularly in the coastal region which faces relentless pressures from development.
That's why it's important to keep a close watch for the protection of state rivers such as the Edisto. But to describe the Edisto as one of America's Most Endangered Rivers is an inaccuracy that diminishes the hard work that has been done on all sides to preserve one of South Carolina's treasured resources.