Farm fight for Edisto

While the Edisto River might look like a limitless resource — like where it passes by Martin’s Landing — it is a relatively narrow ribbon of water through the Lowcountry.

The warning is crystal clear: Surface water withdrawal must be regulated tighter in South Carolina to keep large-scale users like agribusiness from parching the supply for everyone else. That’s what the Edisto’s designation as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States is all about.

Whether the regulations will be tightened, that gets murkier. A bill to do it has a tough row to hoe because of potatoes and politics. The S.C. Farm Bureau, among other agriculture business interests, opposes it.

“It’s hard to get anything past (the Senate) Agriculture Committee that the Farm Bureau opposes,” said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

The Edisto has been named one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country by the water advocate American Rivers, for the second straight year. This time, it’s because the advocate sees the river as a symbol of every river in the state and the straits that the demand for water is leaving them in.

The designations and the controversy come in the wake of the Walther potato farm dispute — a 2013 legal and legislative fight over an 800 million gallon-per-month withdrawal sought by a Michigan-based company for its farm in Windsor, south of Columbia.

The intent is to push approval of that bill, now working through the S.C. Senate and House under separate filings, that would put farms under the same sort of withdrawal restrictions as utilities or manufacturers.

“Excessive agricultural water withdrawals are putting water supply, water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation at risk,” the American Rivers report said.

“There has to be a system in place to make sure the resource is sustainable and manageable,” said Gerrit Jobsis, the group’s regional director.

The Farm Bureau maintains the laws that are now in place do the job, the Edisto withdrawals aren’t excessive and agricultural users are among the most sensitive to keeping the flow sustainable. At least some small-farm owners agree with them.

“I think people look at the numbers (of withdrawal volume) and they don’t see the facts,” said Greg Johnsman, the farmer owner of Geechie Boy Mills on Edisto Island and a former S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control employee.

“That is the only way (the Walther farmers) can make a living and they have done everything the state has asked them to do,” Johnsman said.

The black willows dipping their heads from the river banks, the sun turning the autumn cypress tawny gold — the Edisto River is among the most prized waterways in the state.

Considered the longest free-flowing blackwater in the country, it runs more than 200 miles virtually across the middle of South Carolina like a belt. It feeds two-thirds of the water flowing into the vast Ashepoo, Combahee, Edisto (ACE) Basin delta south of Charleston.

For generations, as other waterways developed, the Edisto “backwaters” remained largely the haunts of longtime country farming families.

The serenity muted a number of emerging problems, including widely variable water flow. The river is shallow enough that near Givhans State Park outside Ridgeville, it dried up during the recent drought years to runs of little more than wading depth. In other words, at times there isn’t a lot a lot of water to go around.

With population booming, waterworks and more urban users have begun pulling more of it in.

The state uses different standards to regulate farm water withdrawals as opposed to utilities or manufacturing. The difference boils down to this: Once a farm is permitted to withdraw a volume of water, no one can tell them to stop, just prevent them from withdrawing more.

Only when the state declares the worst level of drought can the farms be required to reduce withdrawal, under provisions of the Drought Response Act, according to DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley.

The intent was to protect growing food crops. But then came the Walther potato farm dispute. That has been settled, for now, with the company compromising. But after years of relatively stable, relatively small farm withdrawals, the requested volume was a bombshell for other river users and the environmental community.

“There is no authority vested in DHEC to tell (agriculture businesses) they can’t withdraw,” said Campsen, the Senate bill sponsor.

“I’m OK with agriculture being treated differently. I don’t want to disrupt traditional farm use,” he said. “But (current regulations) harm existing farmers more than anyone else. They create a preference for out-of-state mega-farms that want to come in and suck up the water farmers here having been using for six, seven and eight generations.”

Meanwhile, with more than half the states in the country now facing water shortages, S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers has announced he is actively recruiting agribusinesses from those states, using the relative abundance of water here as an inducement.

Gov. Nikki Haley has championed agribusiness.

“Although we can’t talk about specific ongoing economic development projects, Governor Haley’s highest priority is and has been bringing jobs to every part of South Carolina — and when she’s selling our state, she always talks about our rich natural resources,” said spokeswoman Chaney Adams.

The concerns led to the bill, which calls for large agricultural withdrawal applications to undergo public review, be required to curtail use during low flow periods and submit a contingency operation plan for low flow periods.

The water seems inexhaustible in a state where, even in the heart of drought years a decade ago, artisan wells on the coast continued to flow. But since those drought years, South Carolina has engaged in “water wars” disputes over the resource — the sort of legal fights more associated with arid western states. Region-wide, water has become a tugged-after, supply-and-demand commodity, like fuel.

The Edisto provides the largest volume of surface water withdrawal for irrigation in the state, according to a 2014 DHEC draft report. But overall, the withdrawals from the river pale in comparison to Upstate river and lake sources.

The report indicated that statewide from 2002 to 2013, while groundwater use appears to be trending up, surface water use has bounced back and forth in the same range. Both varied widely year-to-year — surface between about 5 billion and 13 billion gallons; groundwater between 7 and more than 20 billion gallons.

Jobsis argues that the Walther withdrawal significantly altered that, and now other large users want in.

By state law, “the water is a public resource,” Campsen said. “It doesn’t belong to utility companies, farmers or manufacturers. It belongs to the people. We need to be stewards of that resource, and the first priority goes to ‘bass, boats and Bubba,’ the ecosystem, public use and drinking water.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.