River group urges fast action on water bill

River group urges fast action on water bill

This story was produced for the Orangeburg Times and Democrat, which has paid for sole publication rights. The Times and Democrat is a member of a legislative reporting partnership between the Carolina Reporter and the South Carolina Press Association.

By Deborah Swearingen

A love of rivers brought Larry Harwood to the Statehouse on Tuesday for a news conference designed to jump start legislation that would tighten regulations on the agricultural use of water.

“It’s one of God’s greatest gifts,” Harwood said. “We are just so fortunate to have the Edisto River.”

He drove an hour from Sumter to join about 20 others as S.C. Rivers Forever, an advocacy group, described the importance of House bill 3564. It has been stuck in committee since it was introduced in February.

The Edisto River was named the fifth-most endangered river by the national nonprofit American Rivers because of a perceived threat from withdrawals by large-scale farming operations. Last year, the river was sixth on the list.

If passed, the bill would require farmers to seek a permit for future large water withdrawals, just like industries do. Currently, agricultural operations don’t need to follow the same permitting process as industries.

The Edisto River is threatened by withdrawals by large industrial agriculture, said Gerrit Jobsis, senior director of the Southeastern division of American Rivers.

“It’s not just the South Fork,” Jobsis said. “It’s the North Fork. It’s the main stem. It’s all the way down to the East Basin.”

Discussion of the Edisto River’s future was spurred by Michigan-based Walther Farms’ plan to take up to 9.6 billion gallons of water annually for its potato farm in Aiken County. The amount was later cut in half.

Jobis said rivers are fundamental for the state’s economy, adding that the Edisto River is endangered from a lack of effective regulation.

For Ben Gregg, executive director of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, it’s about balance.

“You have to have enough water for different interests,” he said, including wildlife, recreation and farming.

The legislation is designed to change a compromise developed over several years to regulate the state’s waters.

Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said the original legislation was meant to protect the average South Carolina farm. What no one anticipated, he said, was an influx of large, industrial farms.

“It was never intended for industrial farmers to come out and empty the river,” he said.

Large-scale farms should be treated just like everyone else, including power companies down the river who also need the same resource, Smith said.

“They should all work together to utilize and maintain the safety of the river,” Smith said.

The S.C. Farm Bureau accuses supporters of the bill of using scare tactics to advance it.

It also notes that a statewide surface water assessment is underway, and says a scientific process must be used in regulating the state’s rivers.

Although legislative session ends June 4, Jobsis remains hopeful that progress will be made soon.

“We must do this now,” Smith said, adding that it’s better to pass the bill into law before the state faces a real crisis.