South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Thirsty mega-farms siphon S.C.’s rivers as state watches
April 26th, 2017


During the summer of 2015, a national potato grower pumped more than 1 billion gallons of water from a small river onto the large crop farm it had recently opened in South Carolina.

The irrigation effort kept potatoes alive and growing in the hot, dry weather – but it also did what many people feared: The Walther Farms irrigation pipe lowered water levels in the South Fork of the Edisto River, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources says.

From May through July, the amount of water flowing near the pipe dropped an average of 7 percent, according to river data analyzed this year by the DNR’s water division. And on some days, river flows might have dropped as much as 12 percent, the DNR says.

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The findings are among the first to show how the potato farm has affected the South Fork – and they are adding fuel to arguments for a crackdown on river irrigation by big crop growers across South Carolina.

An array of interests, from Blue Ridge Mountain kayakers to Pee Dee landowners, say South Carolina should tighten its water law before industrial-scale agriculture siphons too much water from rivers. In some cases, rivers supply drinking water. In others, they provide water that small farmers need. And almost all have fish and wildlife that draw recreational users on weekends.

The DNR’s findings “support concerns we have for this basically unregulated use of rivers,’’ said Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, who has introduced legislation to tighten state oversight of mega-farm withdrawals. “It shows that (river irrigation) is having a negative impact. I’m concerned that without us taking action, it’ll just get worse.’’

Walther Farms executive Jeremy Walther questioned the DNR’s findings, saying he’d heard nothing about any problems his company had caused on the river from irrigation.

But there’s little question the state doesn’t look as carefully at farm withdrawals as it does other types.

South Carolina law is filled with exemptions for agriculture that, among other things, grant qualifying farms the use of the state’s rivers forever.

Unlike industries, commercial farms don’t need to show how their water use will affect downstream crop growers, wildlife or people in other states. They can pull water from rivers without telling the public. And if a farm wants to increase the amount it takes for irrigation, it undergoes only a superficial review by state regulators.

The state relies on a mathematical formula in deciding whether to approve major farm withdrawals. The method, however, does not always take into account how a withdrawal will affect rivers at times of the year when water levels are naturally low, DNR officials say. As a result, state regulators can allocate more water for irrigation than actually is moving through a river channel, critics say.

South Carolina’s water law has so many breaks for large-scale agriculture that residents of Greenville, Bamberg and Darlington counties have filed suit in an attempt to throw out the exemptions. The matter is now before the S.C. Supreme Court, and a decision could come at any time.

Lawyer Amy Armstrong said the case results from problems highlighted in the Edisto River basin. Out-of-state farm corporations have acquired about 10,000 acres in the basin and converted forested land to expansive vegetable fields during the past four years.

“The people in the Edisto basin have been aware of what happens when there is not enough water flowing,’’ Armstrong said.

In the Edisto basin, much of the concern focuses on how big farms affect small farms that also irrigate with river water, as well as people downstream who fish and kayak. The South Fork of the Edisto, where the farms are located, drains into the main channel of the Edisto and through the ACE Basin nature preserve.

The main stem of the Edisto River also has at least one drinking water intake that supplements the Charleston water system. No problems have been noticed so far, but Charleston officials are watching what happens upriver.

Smith’s bill, introduced last month with little fanfare, attempts to tighten the rules on major agricultural withdrawals. The bill requires farms withdrawing 3 million gallons or more per month to get permits, just like industries must obtain. That would require tighter scrutiny by state regulators before they decide on a major farm withdrawal. The public would also receive notice when a big farm seeks a river withdrawal permit.

Irrigation hot spot

Lax regulation of farms is a big issue for some people who live in the upper Edisto River basin. That’s where Tom Tyler’s ancestors settled in the 1600s.

Tyler, 74, owns 1,400 acres, with much of the land on small streams that drain into the South Fork of the Edisto. He has in the past used the land for quail hunting, but Tyler also farms cattle on some of the property. These days, he uses his property to access streams so he can fish in the dark, tea-colored water.

In his view, industrial-scale farms threaten water supplies for others who rely on the South Fork.

“I don’t think you need to sacrifice everybody else – particularly those on that little tiny South Edisto River – for just a few,’’ Tyler said. “It’s going to have to be addressed sooner or later. (Mega-farm boosters) just don’t want to admit that there’s a problem.’’

Walther Farms, the Michigan corporation that has opened two expansive potato farms since 2013, is by no means the only crop-grower that relies on river water to irrigate its fields in the Edisto River basin. More than half of the 10 billion gallons withdrawn statewide annually from S.C. lakes, ponds and rivers come from the Edisto basin..

But Walther is among the thirstiest of farms, records show. The company’s potato fields near Windsor ranked fourth in the state in the amount of surface water used for irrigation in 2015, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Surface water includes rivers, ponds and lakes.

Walther siphoned about 1 billion gallons from the South Fork that year. Titan Farms, a peach-growing giant that arrived in the Edgefield area more than 15 years ago, withdrew about 1.7 billion gallons of surface water in 2015. A Titan official said most of that was from storage ponds, not from rivers.

Questions about using rivers to supply large crop farms are heightened by data showing that surface water irrigation is on the rise in the Edisto River basin.

Surface water withdrawals by agriculture jumped 30 percent in the area from 2010 to 2015, DHEC said in response to questions from The State.

Scott Harder, a hydrologist with the DNR, said there’s little doubt Walther Farms’ irrigation pipe affected the South Fork in 2015. The question is whether the 7 percent drop in flows during the summer of 2015 hurt the river — and if so, how.

He said farms will almost always reduce flow in the summer. “It’s just going to vary in magnitude depending on whether it’s a wet or dry summer,’’ Harder said of Walther.

While the impacts on fish and wildlife aren’t fully known, his agency has said in the past it was worried about how the Walther withdrawals would affect aquatic species. A Dec. 15, 2013, draft letter from the DNR to DHEC said the Walther withdrawal could disrupt the spawning of shad, herring and sturgeon, while degrading the cool water habitat striped bass thrive in. The draft letter said the Walther Farms withdrawal could remove one-quarter of the river’s flow during droughts.

In addition to Walther, DHEC also has approved other withdrawals in the Edisto basin during the past four years. One of the largest agricultural withdrawals, aside from Walther’s, is a 1 billion gallon plan the agency authorized from a tiny tributary of the Edisto’s South Fork near the town of Springfield.

DHEC approved that plan in June 2016. Adjacent land was then cleared, and about 300 acres sold to FPI Properties of Colorado last month. FPI officials said the land would be farmed. RRR Farms, a South Carolina company that sold the property to FPI, was unavailable for comment to discuss the FPI sale.

Wagener auto parts dealer Doug Busbee, an outdoorsman who has become one of the area’s most outspoken proponents of a tighter water law, said the FPI purchase shows him national investment companies are interested in South Carolina farmland because of the state’s water, which costs nothing to use. Unlike Walther and the Woody agribusiness group, both of which are farming the land in the area, FPI buys farmland and rents it out. The company owns land across the country, including about 13,000 acres in South Carolina.

“You’ve got a public trust resource being traded for profit,’’ Busbee said.

‘Different league’ of farm

Jeremy Walther, who runs Walther’s potato farm in South Carolina, emphasized his operation isn’t the only one in the basin that irrigates. But he said people should not be concerned about his farm.

Walther Farms uses water only when it needs it, he said. Walther said he’s unaware of any verifiable problems in the river, despite the recent DNR calculations that river flows had dropped 7 percent near his company’s irrigation pipe.

“In the last four years, no one has mentioned the river dropping,’’ Walther said.

The S.C. Farm Bureau also downplayed concerns about large farms drawing down rivers. Farmers are responsible users of water who have no interest in depleting rivers, a top official said.

“We are not just out there dumping water willy-nilly,’’ Farm Bureau President Harry Ott said. “We are only doing it when we absolutely need to.”

That’s why South Carolina should step carefully before tightening the law on river irrigation, the bureau says. South Carolina rivers appear to be healthy, the bureau says.

“Since 2010, we’ve had some pretty extreme weather events, and there has been no negative impact on any river system where we have water withdrawals taking place,’’ Ott said. “To anticipate something in the future that may or may not happen, I would not just open the book that wide open.’’

Part of the reason South Carolina hasn’t addressed changing the 2010 water law is simple: momentum for change was hurt by a record flood in the fall of 2015 and Hurricane Matthew in the fall of 2016. Concerns about water drying up became less urgent because of flooding.

But the S.C. Farm Bureau also has played a role. The Farm Bureau, which has spent about $1 million lobbying the Legislature since 2009, has forcefully opposed efforts to tighten controls on farm withdrawals.

Agriculture officials say the state should be cautious about a crackdown because farms supply food. Excessive regulation could hinder that effort, they say.

Agribusiness, which includes food processors, has a total economic impact on South Carolina of $41.7 billion and provides more than 200,000 jobs, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

For now, DHEC, the Farm Bureau and the Department of Natural Resources are awaiting a major river basin report they say will provide more details on how – or whether – to tighten control of farms that take billions of gallons of river water each year.

How that would influence any decisions to tighten the state’s river irrigation rules is unknown. But the DNR continues to express reservations about the 2010 law.

“We were the last entity standing with concerns,’’ Ken Rentiers, a deputy chief at DNR, said in a recent interview. “Those (concerns) haven’t really changed.’’

DHEC, which approves farm withdrawals, hardly looks at environmental impacts in making its decision, nor does the department consult with the natural resources agency, DNR records show. DHEC’s decision to approve the Walther Farms irrigation project is a good example, according to a Dec. 15, 2013, draft memo by Rentiers.

“Walther Farms represents a different league of agricultural water use in our state, equivalent to the use of an electrical power plant or large municipal water supply,’’ Rentiers wrote. “The magnitude of this withdrawal, particularly in context of the small stream from which it is to be taken, presents a situation that should undergo a public review and consultation process.’’

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