Prevent overuse of S.C. rivers

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. (Wade Spees/Staff)

It only took one water-gulping new industrial-scale potato farm to land the south fork of the Edisto River on a 2014 list of the country’s most endangered rivers compiled by American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group. This year, both the north and south forks of the Edisto — which supplies drinking water for the Lowcountry and is possibly the world’s longest free-flowing blackwater river — made the list.

The threat remains the same.

Large industrial farms are increasingly moving to South Carolina, which until recently had virtually no restrictions on surface water withdrawal. That changed in 2010, when legislation passed requiring most businesses to obtain a permit for large scale withdrawals, but exempting agricultural use.

Lawmakers intended for the agricultural exemption to protect small family farmers from the burden of bureaucratic red tape, but it has been used as a loophole to benefit large, wealthy agribusiness.

The Aiken County potato farm that first prompted the Edisto’s inclusion on the endangered river list initially sought to withdraw more than 26 million gallons per day to irrigate crops, for example. That’s enough water for a small city.

Thanks largely to the efforts of determined community and environmental groups, the potato farm eventually agreed to withdraw much less than its initial request.

But more large-scale farms could soon be on the way as state leaders seek to bring in out-of-state businesses. Recently, state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers reportedly courted California farmers devastated by a long-term drought.

Of course, South Carolina increasingly risks water shortage disasters of its own if current trends continue unchecked.

Bipartisan efforts in both chambers of the state Legislature would close the agricultural exemption in the 2010 law, and require large farms to go through a public permitting process before withdrawing significant amounts of water.

They deserve broad support.

Importantly, the House bill would exempt smaller farms that use less than 3 million gallons per month, and existing farms would not need a new permit unless withdrawal increases substantially.

Those protections represent an improvement in the existing law, while recognizing that agriculture generates more than $40 billion annually in the state and employs more than 200,000 South Carolinians. But ensuring the future prosperity of farming demands stronger oversight of water resources.

“We are blessed with water,” said Ann Timberlake, executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina. “But if we want to be good stewards, attract industries and grow communities, it’s all related to the availability of water.”

It’s time to expand reasonable safeguards to better preserve South Carolina’s freshwater long before that life-giving resource starts to run dry.