Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Possible farm water use regulations drying up

By: Matt Chaney//April 10, 2018

Possible farm water use regulations drying up

By: Matt Chaney//April 10, 2018


A South Carolina House panel voted March 21 against expanding the regulation of agricultural water use in the state.

The bill, proposed by Reps. James Smith, D-Richland, and Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, failed to pass the House Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs.

Had it progressed through the legislature and become law, the bill would have required agricultural water users who withdraw 3 million gallons of water a month or more to participate in the same permitting process as other industries.

The Surface Water Withdrawal Act, passed in 2010, currently provides an exception to all agricultural producers, but still requires them to self-report how much water they use annually.

Supporters of the amendment say that the regulation is necessary to create recourse for when a farm uses too much water. The farmers argue that such limits would place borders on the amount of food they can produce, and that they only use a small percentage of the total surface water anyways.

What environmentalists think

Bill Stangler who is the Riverkeepers representative for the Congaree River, said that his organization supported the bill because they are concerned about the health of rivers.

“Agriculture is considered a special class of water users and is treated differently, they don’t have to go through the same permitting process,” Stangler said. “Instead, they go through registration, but registration lasts forever and gives water rights in perpetuity.”

He said that if permitted water users damage the river from using more than they are allowed, then the government can stop them from using it. But if farms use too much, there are no consequences.

“You can run a river dry and there’s no recourse,” he said.

A farmer’s perspective

Charles Wingard who is the vice president of field operations for Walter P. Rawls and Sons, a farm that would have been impacted by the bill, said that irrigation only accounts for about 3 percent of all surface water withdrawals in the state.

He said that in his opinion there is no incentive for farmers to overuse water because they rely on it just as much, if not more, than anyone else.

“We only use it when we need to, unlike other industries,” he said. “We rely on rain and only turn to artificial irrigation when it’s absolutely necessary.”

Wingard said that scientific research should be the basis for policy change, and that for now, the research is still being gathered.

“I’m not against managing the resource if data and the science shows we need to tighten up management,” he said. “But we don’t have that data now … it’s not there to support tighter regulations.”

A legal challenge

This comes as a legal challenge to the Surface Water Withdrawal Act is before the South Carolina Supreme Court.

The suit was brought by a group of South Carolina residents who say they have been adversely impacted by large agricultural producers overusing water. Stangler said that Riverkeepers also wrote an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit.

Attorney Amy Armstrong said in an interview that the suit began after the Surface Water Withdrawal Act was passed in 2010 and exempted agricultural companies.

“The first time we saw ramifications from it was with the potato farm who used a huge amount of water, basically an uncapped amount,” Armstrong said.

The incident she referred to happened in the summer of 2015 when potato growers Walther Farms used a large quantity of water from the Edisto River to irrigate their crops, thereby reducing water levels further downstream.

Jeremy Walther, who manages the farm told The T&D that the farm has since reduced its surface water withdrawal by half and that the farm is committed to maintaining the health of the river.

In a petition for rehearing after the Supreme Court issued a 3-2 opinion in 2017 upholding the law, Armstrong’s team claimed that agriculture is responsible for using 63.2 billion gallons of water in the state each year. She argues that this is a public asset that the state has willingly given away without concern for the future.

“Why do these mega-farms come and suck up all the water? Because South Carolina lets them,” she said.

Stangler said that the case depends on the fact that the rivers belong to the public and that they must be shared fairly.

“These rivers belong to all residents living in South Carolina, they’re held in public trust,” he said. “It’s imperative that they are regulated for the benefit of all and not given away to any one group.”

In a return to petition for rehearing filed on behalf of the state, lawyers J. Emory Smith and Lisa Reynolds argue that the plaintiffs have no grounds for appeal because no problems are known to have occurred as a result of water withdrawals by farms.

Armstrong said that if this appeal goes against her clients, she does not believe there is much hope for further appeal.

“If we lose again, the door is shut,” she said.

For his part, Wingard said that agriculture in South Carolina needs all the help it can get.

“There are three things going on in agriculture, any one is bad, but collectively, it’s grim,” he said. “The average age of farmers is going up … commodity prices like corn are staying the same and farm income is going down. It’s on a 10-12 year decline … It doesn’t speak well for the farmer or the consumer.”

The South Carolina Supreme Court has been deliberating the case since January. No formal opinion has yet been issued.

Business Law

See all Business Law News


See all Commentary


How Is My Site?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...