Farmer after farmer pleaded with state policymakers Wednesday not to crack down on their use of rivers for irrigation, a practice they said is vital to producing food for the public table.
During the first hearing in what is likely to be a drawn-out legislative fight, S.C. Farm Bureau boosters said the state should stop a bill that would more tightly regulate large withdrawals of water from rivers for agriculture.
The bill is intended to prevent big corporate farms from sucking rivers dry while irrigating crops. South Carolina’s 2010 surface water law allows farms, unlike other businesses, to siphon large amounts of water from rivers without notifying the public or allowing the public to appeal withdrawal plans to state regulators.
And instead of requiring a detailed study that looks at how a proposed agricultural withdrawal affects other river users and wildlife, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control relies on a simple mathematical formula to determine if the siphoning would hurt the river.
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But the S.C. Farm Bureau says agriculture should get a break that other industries do not because farmers produce food – and the influential organization’s position was echoed by numerous speakers at Wednesday’s hearing.
“I know what it is like to have to deal with bills and all this regulation: It’s tough on a farmer,” said Jeff Wilson, who grows peaches, vegetables and pumpkins in Chester County. “It gets into my pocket quick. It does hurt family farmers.”
About one-third of the 30 or so people signed up to testify Wednesday identified themselves as family farmers worried about excessive regulation. Most of them sported bright green Farm Bureau stickers saying they back family farms.
Loni Rikard, a Lexington County crop farmer, said she doesn’t own a mega-farm like the ones some say are endangering rivers with excessive withdrawals. Instead, Rikard said she owns an average farm that she worries could be affected by the water withdrawal bill.
“You see family farms start to fold because of excessive regulations and excessive expenses, then you have an economic situation where (there is) less supply of food and greater demand,” she said. “Your food prices will go up, or worst-case scenario, we may have a food shortage.
“I am asking you today to vote no on this bill. ... I think the only thing we have new since 2010 is new emotion.”
The bill, introduced in February by Columbia Democratic Rep. James Smith and 11 other lawmakers, would focus on big farm withdrawals by requiring farms to get permits like other businesses.
Farms planning to withdraw 3 million gallons of water per month from a river would then be examined more carefully before DHEC would decide on whether to allow the siphoning. The bill also would require that the public be notified of a big water withdrawal on a river.
The bill is unlikely to pass the Legislature this year, but it can be carried over until the next legislative session in January 2016. A panel of the House agriculture committee, which held the hearing, voted not to act on the legislation after the nearly four-hour session.
Some of the farmers complaining said the amount of water considered to be a large withdrawal isn’t that much water, meaning it would affect small farms. Others expressed concern that their farm ponds could be regulated, which the bill does not propose to do. Some said they didn’t irrigate at all, but wanted to speak out against government regulation.
Bill supporters said the arguments against the legislation appeared to be orchestrated.
“It did seem like they were very much on message, and it did seem like Farm Bureau did a fair bit of organizing in order to make that happen,” said Hugo Krispyn, an Edisto River basin landowner who supports the legislation.
Krispyn, among the leaders in Aiken County pushing for the changes, told the committee the state can’t afford to allow rivers to be depleted.
In an effort to stop the bill, the S.C. Farm Bureau has launched a sustained and aggressive advertising campaign asking people to support the state’s farmers. The campaign has at times during the past year said farmers are under attack by “radical” environmentalists.
But many of the bill’s supporters are small farmers and outdoors people from rural South Carolina. They say the legislation is needed to keep rivers from being drawn dry.
“The publicity campaign (against the bill) has been sort about a ‘War on Farmers,’” Taylor said. “I think not. I think it is a war to protect farmers in this state and protect everyone who uses our river resources. We want to reform the bill that got passed in 2010.”
A large potato farm that opened on the South Fork of the Edisto River southwest of Columbia last year generated Wednesday’s outcry reverberating at the Statehouse. The farm corporation, headquartered in Michigan, initially wanted to take up to 9.6 billion gallons of water from the skinny river each year but later agreed to cut that to about 3 billion gallons.
Proponents of the bill say that the state now is actively recruiting other out-of-state mega-farms that could threaten rivers – particularly those in the Edisto basin. One of those is reportedly a Texas growing operation that would supply corn for tortillas, in the Edisto basin, Krispyn said.
The Edisto River basin is the most heavily used for irrigation in South Carolina, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. That’s why so much support for the legislation has come from Aiken, Barnwell and Orangeburg-area residents.
The South Fork of the Edisto is a tributary to the main stem of the Edisto, one of three main rivers that run through the nationally known ACE Basin preserve in the Lowcountry. The ACE features open marshes, wooded swamps and historical sites.
The ACE is located between Orangeburg and the coast south of Charleston.
The Edisto River, the longest undammed blackwater river in the country, recently was named one of the country’s most endangered waterways by the national environmental group American Rivers.