South Carolina’s treasured rivers need protection

The Edisto River is popular for kayaking and canoeing. (Bill Thompson/File)

BY JAMES GUSTAVE SPETH

When I was growing up in Orangeburg, the meandering black waters of the Edisto River inspired my lifelong love of rivers. It’s been many years since I left my boyhood home, but I still feel a strong connection to the Edisto and, indeed, to South Carolina rivers generally.

On a recent trip to South Carolina, I learned that this natural treasure, the longest undammed blackwater river in the country, has become the subject of a contentious debate focused on water rights. The local issue is part of a national concern about water scarcity, and should serve as the rallying cry for better water stewardship in the state.

Current South Carolina law sanctions unreasonable and unscientific levels of withdrawal from South Carolina’s water bodies, especially the extraordinary blackwater rivers, which, like the Edisto, originate on the coastal plain. Without amendment, state law is consigning these rivers to virtual extinction during times of drought. Further, these rights are issued to agricultural users in perpetuity, essentially robbing future users of fair allocations.

South Carolina rivers are a public trust. The Legislature has a duty to its citizens, and the law must change to ensure that these vital resources remain healthy and viable. There is great value in our rivers beyond short-term uses, and it is crucial that the decision makers (and the decisions they make) ensure that our use of those public resources is sustainable and there for future generations.

It is puzzling that this simple idea has become a bone of contention, but powerful lobbying forces have stepped forward with exaggerated claims. The water withdrawal issue should not be decided on talking points being aggressively marketed by special interests.

I urge each and every South Carolinian to explore this issue. Look beyond the talking points, find out the facts, and then make your own informed decision. Once you’ve done that, contact your legislators. Share information with your friends.

South Carolina is blessed with an abundance of rivers, and in a world where sweet fresh water is an increasingly scarce and precious resource, that’s a treasure worth protecting. If you love a river in South Carolina, this isn’t an issue you can safely ignore.

James Gustave Speth, a native of Orangeburg and part-time Charleston area resident, was the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is founder and president of the World Resources Institute and a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council.