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While most discussion of voting centered around Tuesday’s midterm election, another key vote will come two days after.

The state Board of Health and Environmental Control will decide Nov. 8 whether to require large water users in T&D Region counties to seek a permit to draw groundwater.

The board will hold a public hearing on the proposal during its 10 a.m. meeting in the board room at DHEC headquarters, 2600 Bull St., Columbia. Persons desiring to make oral comments at the hearing are asked to limit their statements to five minutes and provide written comments of their presentations for the record.

The permit would be required for individuals who withdraw more than 3 million gallons of water a month or 100,000 gallons a day. This is a typical amount of water used by local farmers and golf courses.

With DHEC citing a steady decline in groundwater resources over the past few decades in The T&D Region and the Edisto River Basin, the agency’s board is expected to give its approval to the Western Capacity Use Area. The counties included are Orangeburg, Bamberg, Calhoun, Lexington, Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale.

Under the proposal, the water user withdrawing more than 3 million gallons a month will have to submit a free application to DHEC for a review of the usage.

DHEC will then analyze the application for its water-usage plans, including the purpose of water usage, size of the farm, surrounding neighbors and available water sources.

The application would be placed on public notice -- in the newspaper for a day and on DHEC's website for 30 days -- and a decision will be made typically within 60 days of being submitted. There is also 14-day appeal process, which will be handled by DHEC.

Permits for usage will be subject to review and renewal every five years.

Farmers continue to have concerns and key organizations such as S.C. Farm Bureau and the Palmetto Agribusiness Council are opposed. They say more data needs to be gathered before the regulation is implemented.

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 Use of surface water must be registered if in excess of 3 million gallons of water is withdrawn in any one month.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 DHEC.

At present, an agricultural enterprise using that much water does not require notice to the public and a hearing regarding impact.

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 seven 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.

For now, we share S.C. Farm Bureau’s concern that a DHEC decision this week on establishing the Western Capacity Use Area is premature with a state study of groundwater availability not yet finished. It’s scheduled to be completed in February 2019.

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.

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