Long before South Carolina put its best foot forward seeking industries and other businesses, leaders were committed to fostering and protecting the agricultural roots of the state’s economy.

That has not changed, as the Palmetto State’s agribusiness sector, which includes forestry, is at the top in economic impact.

Just as with all development, however, there must be safeguards that the state’s people and its environment are protected while the push for “progress” is ongoing. Threats to the natural resources of a state as blessed as South Carolina must be addressed even as our leaders do not put into place unreasonable restrictions.

The state's regulatory and permitting process with regard to industrial and agricultural use of water has been brought into focus with the proliferation of megafarms drawing water from the Edisto River.

South Carolina law enacted in 2010 was intended to control the unchecked withdrawal of water from rivers. Use of surface water must be registered if in excess of 3 million gallons of water is withdrawn in any one month. For agriculture, 3 million gallons is roughly equal to applying one inch of water to 30 acres of crops four times in a month.

For non-agricultural uses exceeding 3 million gallons a month, public notice and a hearing are required in advance of permit issuance by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

An agricultural enterprise using that much water does not require notice to the public and a hearing regarding impact.

That may change.

The DHEC board reportedly plans to consider rules on whether anyone wanting to draw out large amounts of groundwater in seven counties being most impacted by megafarms will need a permit.

DHEC announced a plan to regulate withdrawals of more than 3 million gallons of groundwater a month in Orangeburg, Calhoun, Bamberg, Aiken, Lexington, Allendale and Barnwell counties.

The proposal comes after The State newspaper of Columbia reported groundwater levels dropping 5 to 15 feet in the counties in recent years as megafarms moved in.

"As the development of the groundwater resource continues, further water level declines will be expected and the potential for adverse impacts to current and future groundwater users will become more frequent and serious over time," DHEC wrote in a report on the situation.

The report said several other factors also have led to concerning drops in groundwater levels, including development and droughts.

Agribusiness – which is vital to the economies of counties such as Orangeburg, Calhoun and Bamberg – emphasizes factors other than irrigation that are impacting groundwater levels. Farmers point to irrigation accounting for less than 5 percent of all surface water use.

Agricultural interests contend the Surface Water Act is sufficient, citing broad support for the 2010 legislation from lawmakers, farmers, conservation groups, scientists and regulatory agencies. The registration process, which establishes a minimum flow for a river and requires agricultural usage to fit within a safe yield, was a key part of the legislation designed to ensure farmers’ access to water.

More than six years after the law took effect, it remains in the hands of DHEC alone to make a decision that is in the best interest of economic development and protecting water supplies.

South Carolina lawmakers should change that by providing a process by which industry and industrial-sized farms are subject to similar scrutiny when it comes to use of water and natural resources while at the same time ensuring regulation does not become a bureaucratic license hindering business.

Before implementing regulations for the Edisto River counties, DHEC is to collect comments from the public and businesses before presenting the proposal for a vote by the agency's board in October.

Agriculture needs a strong say as farmers are rightly concerned that limits on megafarms today will become limits on all farms tomorrow.

Burdening farmers -- and industry -- with regulation for the sake of regulation is not what the Palmetto State needs for development or protection of resources. Agriculture is vital to the state and it must have access to water to survive and prosper.

State leaders from rural counties are being counted on to take the lead in emphasizing that farmers as much as anyone know the importance of natural resources and have a vested interest in ensuring that their industry or any interest does not put them at risk. After all, farmers' livelihoods -- and ability to continue feeding millions -- depend on the state's bountiful land.

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