SC needs reasonable water regulations for farms

State lawmakers ought to be able to set a reasonable balance between regulating the withdrawal of water from South Carolina’s rivers by huge agricultural concerns and meeting the water needs of small family farmers.

State lawmakers are considering 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 drawing so much water from rivers that water for smaller farms and even the drinking water supply for residents in the river basin would be adversely affected.

But some small farmers think the state may have set the water standards too low. Under the bill, farms planning to withdraw three million gallons of water per month from a river would have to be reviewed more carefully before the state Department of Health and Environmental Control could approve the siphoning. The bill also would require that the public be notified of a big water withdrawal on a river.

Farmers attending a recent hearing on the bill complained that three million gallons a month is not much water. They worry that the limit could prevent them from producing food for the region.

It should be noted, however, that many of the bill’s supporters are small farmers and outdoors enthusiasts from rural parts of the state. They say the legislation is needed to keep rivers from being sucked dry.

Supporters offer the example of a large potato farm that opened on the south fork of the Edisto River southwest of Columbia last year. The corporate farm, which has headquarters in Michigan, initially wanted to withdraw up to 9.6 billion gallons of water from the river each year but later settled for about three billion gallons.

Those are the types of operations – often headed by out-of-state companies – that are primarily targeted by the bill. The Edisto, by the way, recently was named one of the nation’s most endangered waterways by the national environmental group American Rivers.

The Catawba River also is on the list.

We sympathize with the concerns of smaller farm operators who fear that lack of adequate water and the costs of regulation could jeopardize their businesses. And a limit of three million gallons a month might be too low a threshold.

But we also are concerned that without adequate regulation, corporate farming operations could drain the state’s rivers and deprive residents of the water they need for drinking and food production.

Water is a finite resource. Droughts, which have become increasingly common in recent years, put further stress on the water supply.

Family farmers need to be protected. But there is no feasible reason to allow mega-farms to draw billions of gallons of water from the state’s rivers with no oversight from the state.

The thresholds can be adjusted but the state needs a law to ensure that the water supply is shared fairly by all who need it.

In summary

The needs of small farms should be protected, but the state should have regulations to ensure that large farm operations don’t suck the state’s rivers dry.