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COLUMBIA -- The board of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control on Friday unanimously approved the proposed Western Capacity Use Area for seven counties including Orangeburg, Calhoun and Bamberg.

Capacity use is a DHEC program that requires entities withdrawing more than 3 million gallons of groundwater from aquifers to acquire permits and report their groundwater use to DHEC.

The decision came following an executive session and a public hearing, during which the board listened to testimony, research and opinions from anyone who wished to speak on the proposed capacity use after DHEC employees presented their own research findings on the aquifers.

DHEC's studies, which go back years, show significant groundwater decline in aquifers across the state, including in aquifers that supply groundwater in the seven counties.

Although groundwater levels fluctuate over time, there has been a steady decline in overall supply over the decades the research has been collected.

A major concern is how so-called “mega-farms” and industrial businesses, some of which draw billions of gallons of groundwater for their purposes, would affect that resource.

Due to these studies, which found that demand would only increase over time as population in areas like Aiken continued to increase, DHEC employees suggested capacity use be implemented in the affected areas.

People traveled from all across the state to be at the meeting, which was held at 10 a.m. in Columbia. Most of the speakers came from Aiken County.

Among those in favor of capacity use were Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon, County Council Chairman Gary Bunker, representatives from various organizations across the state (most of them environmental), small farmers and concerned citizens.

One citizen from Windsor claimed she turned her sink on one day to find she had no water, as the levels in her well had plummeted after a large farm moved in close to where she lived.

Others raised concerns over how increased demand would affect the supply for future generations.

"At this point, the impact is felt mostly on private well owners and recreational users of the Edisto River," Bunker said during the hearing. "But it doesn't take much imagination to see how – if current trends continue – this issue will grow to the point where further growth and economic expansion are impacted by the limits of our region's fresh water supply."

Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, said the full blame couldn't be placed on mega-farms, but said he was pleased with the outcome of the vote.

"We're all called on to be stewards to that precious resource," Taylor said. "... We can't be kicking the can down the road on this water issue."

Of the 25 speakers who voiced their opinions, experiences, and information they had collected, only the South Carolina Farm Bureau, represented by President Harry Ott of Calhoun County, was opposed to imposing capacity use.

"We do not believe the science exists and is completed as we stand here today," Ott said. "... I want to remind this panel that agriculture is the number one industry in the State of South Carolina."

Ott said the Farm Bureau is not against capacity use but believes DHEC's yearly studies are not adequate enough to warrant implementation currently.

Despite Ott’s stance, some other farmers present at the meeting argued in favor, saying a shortage of water would be detrimental to residents and big farmers alike.

"We have a groundwater resource problem in our state," said Laura Bagwell, a Farm Bureau member and geologist from Aiken. "It's widespread, it's now new, we've had it for years. And it's getting worse."

Bagwell fired back at Farm Bureau arguments that the science wasn't "completed" by saying that science is a "cumulative process" that is never complete, but rather is a series of studies, where each builds upon the next.

DHEC scientists proposed the entire coastal plain be included in capacity-use programs as early as 2004, when evidence of groundwater decline began to crop up in their studies.

The Western Capacity Use Area will also include Lexington, Barnwell and Allendale counties.

Four other capacity-use programs currently exist across South Carolina.

Stakeholder meetings will take place so input from affected parties, including large-scale farmers, can be brought into the capacity-use program at the local level, which varies slightly from area to area based on what drives capacity use.

DHEC's Alex Butler also said the goal is not to prevent people from using water, but rather to make sure they're drawing it from the right area and right source so that other users are not negatively impacted. Sometime the solution involves industries and farms pumping water from deeper aquifers rather than from shallower areas where resident wells rely on groundwater.

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