SC potato farm sparks tensions on the Edisto River

sfretwell@thestate.comDecember 14, 2013 

A mega potato farm planned for Aiken County, shown here from the air, has citizens in the area worried it could deplete the South Fork of the Edisto River.

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN — THE STATE

— Solitude enveloped Doug Busbee as his small boat sliced through the glassy, black water of a river he has loved since childhood.

Aside from the low hum of the vessel’s engine, Busbee heard only an occasional bird call or the gurgling current of the Edisto River’s South Fork. But as he maneuvered the boat around a bend in the stream, the grinding noise of heavy equipment drifted upriver.

Soon, he found the source: a clearing in the hardwood forest where a Michigan agribusiness is preparing land for what’s expected to be the largest potato farm ever in South Carolina.

To Busbee, and many of his neighbors in central Aiken County, the mega-farm’s plan to siphon water from the South Fork is the greatest threat the small river has seen in their lifetimes.

But South Carolina’s weak state water withdrawal law, they warn, also could expose other places to the same struggle their community is going through.

The lack of protection from mega-farms could turn healthy rivers like the South Fork into water-starved channels, killing fish and threatening drinking water supplies, they say.

“The first time I saw this, I almost threw up,” Busbee said as he eased the boat around the site where large excavators and work crews toiled at the river’s edge, grading land and preparing to install water pipes.

“When the Legislature passed this bill, they had good intentions, thinking of the family farm – but this is not a family farm,” Busbee said. “This is a corporation. This is a factory farm.”

The furor, which has erupted in recent weeks, is tied to Walther Farms’ effort to launch at least two massive potato-growing sites and withdraw up to 9.6 billion gallons from the Edisto’s South Fork each year.

Walther’s plan represents an unprecedented farm withdrawal from a river that, during the dry months of summer, is less than 25 feet wide and lower than four feet deep in places.

The small river joins with the North Fork to form the main stem of the Edisto River, which runs through the acclaimed ACE Basin nature preserve of the Lowcountry. Both forks are significant because they contain the sensitive headwaters of the ACE, a protected area that includes the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers.

Quiet approval

South Carolina’s 2010 law, which was intended to control the unchecked withdrawal of water from rivers, provided farmers exemptions from certain parts of the statute that only now are being fully understood.

The potato farm is the first new site approved for withdrawals since the law became effective last year.

Unlike other businesses, farm corporations can siphon huge quantities from rivers without telling the public. And while the state will review plans to take water for farming, the law doesn’t allow the public an opportunity to challenge the work before the Department of Health and Environmental Control board, the agency says.

In contrast, other businesses that want to begin withdrawing large quantities for the first time will need permits that require public notice and a full review. In both cases, the law does not apply to anyone withdrawing less than 3 million gallons per month.

DHEC quietly approved the first proposed Walther withdrawal last spring without public notice. Many people heard rumors about the farm in September.

Walther Farms’ owners, who have not been available this week, said in a recent interview that the company will be a good steward of the Edisto River’s South Fork and that the withdrawals won’t hurt the waterway.

They were attracted to South Carolina for the state’s sandy soil and welcoming attitude, a company official said. The S.C. Department of Agriculture is among the company’s chief boosters, arguing that Walther will help the state’s farm economy.

Walther Farms has 13,000 acres of potato fields in eight states, mostly in the West but also in Florida and Georgia. The company’s 3,700-acre site near Windsor, an old hunt club it acquired from a lending institution, is its first in South Carolina. It grows potatoes for corporations such as Frito Lay to make chips.

Meanwhile, DHEC insists the potato farm won’t hurt the river. The company said it followed the 2010 water law when it approved the mega potato farm’s license last spring. DHEC conducted an in-house study, as required, that found the South Fork of the Edisto has plenty of water to accommodate Walther Farm’s withdrawals, records show.

The agency is currently assessing a second proposed withdrawal of nearly 3 billion gallons per year from the South Fork at an approximately 1,500-acre site in nearby Barnwell County. As with the first withdrawal request, the public wasn’t notified of the plan.

Skinny river

While regulators are confident the South Fork will be protected, that’s a matter of debate in rural Aiken County.

There, the potato farm has become the talk of Windsor, Kitchings Mill and Wagener, a string of tiny communities about an hour’s drive southwest of Columbia.

Some people say they can’t believe the scope of the farming operation and its plan to rely on the Edisto’s South Fork for irrigation. Some say they’ve walked across the South Fork during dry periods without getting their knees wet.

“I have great concerns that so much water may be withdrawn that it may end up like the Rio Grande in Texas, which is now only a trickle,” said 66-year-old Jerry Waters, who owns 700 acres near the farm and whose family has owned land along the South Fork for six decades.

From a helicopter high above the Walther potato farm, it’s easy to see how narrow the Edisto River’s South Fork is – and how far Walther’s agricultural operation reaches.

The amount of cleared land, which once was forested, is enough to contain thousands of football fields.

Company officials have said they plan to farm no more than 2,000 acres of the 3,700-acre site, but that’s still about 13 times more land than all potato farms in South Carolina combined. Agricultural statistics show that only about 150 acres are farmed each year for potatoes in the Palmetto State.

Roads have been cut through the deforested land and pipes are being laid, apparently for the water intake and irrigation systems needed to sustain vast potato fields. In one spot, a wide swath of dirt extends through the remaining forest to the edge of the Edisto’s South Fork, where Busbee saw the heavy equipment last week. The rest of the site has large acreages of bare soil.

It’s difficult from the air, however, to find the Edisto’s South Fork because it is so narrow, even in winter when water levels are higher. Dense forests conceal much of the water.

“This little river cannot stand this,” said Busbee, a Wagener junkyard owner who tears up while talking about the delighted reaction church children have when he shows them the South Fork.

As Busbee guided his boat downriver before reaching the farm site, he pointed out the extensive flood plain that provides habitat for young fish and the deep canopy of trees that shade the main channel.

He’s seen wild turkeys and big deer along the banks, as well as alligators, woodpeckers and birds of prey. During the boat trip, an owl flew silently through the deep forest of cypress, gum and oak trees.

“This river is a part of me, this river is my Xanax, this river calms me, this river makes a man feel at peace,” said the 49-year-old Busbee, who first visited the South Fork to fish when he was young and who took his own son down the river Saturday.

George Young, a 56-year-old Edisto basin landowner who accompanied Busbee down the South Fork last week, said he recently wrote Gov. Nikki Haley asking for help to stop the potato farm’s water withdrawals.

His letter, which noted that he supports farming and is not a “tree hugger,” said smaller agricultural withdrawals already are affecting the South Fork. So he questions how further withdrawals from a mega farm will affect wildlife and fish. Consistent water levels, for instance, help certain species of fish to spawn.

Young, like others, also is concerned about possible fertilizer and pesticide runoff to the river.

Wagener resident Murphy Lybrand, 48, echoed the sentiments of many neighbors.

“I’m not against agriculture, but I’m against sucking the river dry,” Lybrand said with a grim smile.

Community worries about the potato farm caught the attention of state Sen. Nikki Setzler, a Lexington County Democrat who issued a statement Friday saying he’s also concerned about Walther’s expansion in the Edisto basin.

Public shut out

DHEC officials said their analysis should ease people’s minds.

Walther would take only a fraction of the South Fork’s water, the department says. The mean annual daily flow of the river is about 241 million gallons per day, but Walther’s withdrawals would take less than 27 million gallons each day, the department said.

DHEC’s study also said others who draw water from the river, such as nearby small farms, or Charleston’s drinking water source downstream, would still have more than adequate supplies even with Walther’s withdrawals.

“The proposed Walther Farms agricultural withdrawal will have minimal near field and far field impacts on the safe yield of the Edisto River basin,” the March 18 agency study said.

Department spokesman Jim Beasley said DHEC didn’t have to tell the public about the in-house study or about the farm. He said the water law doesn’t allow for public notice or for appeals to the DHEC board of the staff decision.

The law “has no such process for agricultural registrations,” he said in an email to The State newspaper. “The Department has no discretion to exercise our opportunity to use public input in the regulatory process.”

Columbia lawyer Tim Rogers, a former state legislator who heads Friends of the Edisto, said he is dissatisfied with DHEC’s interpretation of the law and unconvinced the agency’s review was thorough enough.

“There is nothing in the act that says they must notify, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do it,” Rogers said.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the state’s other major environmental department, and environmental groups say the withdrawals could have a substantial impact on the South Fork during periods of low water flow.

“This seems to be a very large withdrawal for a small river, especially during the summertime, when the flows are low,” said Gerrit Jobsis, a former DNR biologist who now is with the conservation group American Rivers.

After learning about the Walther Farms’ withdrawal in September, Rogers contacted a river flow expert to see if DHEC’s study is accurate. Friends of the Edisto is considering a lawsuit in state court to stop the withdrawals.

Powerful lobby

South Carolina’s water law isn’t the only one of its kind to exempt farming from certain rules.

Federal and state laws, for instance, allow agricultural interests to destroy wetlands with less government oversight than other types of businesses.

Farm lobbyists wield great power in the S.C. Legislature and in Congress and have been successful through the years at gaining exemptions. Getting a break from the 2010 S.C. water law is an example of the farm lobby’s influence, one state senator said.

“Had we tried to include agriculture in this bill, I don’t think it would have passed,” said Sen. Wes Hayes, a Rock Hill Republican and chief supporter of the law, the first of its kind in South Carolina.

Walther Farms says that while it has operated for years in western states, groundwater has dwindled as farmers have irrigated crops in many arid areas.

“Thankfully, in the Southeast, we get a large amount of rainfall every year,” co-owner Jeremy Walther said in a recent interview with University of South Carolina student journalist Marjorie Sliker. “In Nebraska and Colorado, where we farm, the aquifers have been shrinking for a number of years.”

But Walther also said South Carolina water regulations are “pretty loose as far as drilling wells or anything because of the abundance of water we have here.”

It remains unclear whether the company might also use groundwater to irrigate potatoes. South Carolina law doesn’t regulate industrial-scale wells in the Aiken area, according to DHEC.

Martin Eubanks, an assistant state agriculture commissioner, said he’s glad Walther Farms is in South Carolina. The company won’t employ more than a handful of people, but he said it will buy supplies, such as fertilizer, that will boost the economy.

“We are excited about that operation coming in,” he said.

Busbee, Young and their neighbors say they aren’t so upset with Walther Farms as they are the lack of protections in state law that allowed for massive withdrawals. And, they say, Walther’s withdrawals may be only the first of many by other farm corporations if the law isn’t tightened.

“This is just the beginning of something that is going to be detrimental to the whole state,” Young said. “You get these potato farmers up on the Catawba River (near Rock Hill and Charlotte), and see how people like it up there. That’s what is going to happen. I don’t know how we got where we are at.”

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