Aiken Co. potato farm releases detailed compromise offer

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News 12 at 6 o'clock / Friday, Jan. 17, 2014

WINDSOR, S.C. (WRDW) -- Doug Busbee isn't backing down.

"This is a statewide issue," Busbee said. "Many people are tied to this river. Their roots are tied to this river, and that's why it's excited so many people."

Walther Farms, a supplier of potatoes for the Frito-Lay company, had plans to pump 9.6 billion gallons of water from the South Edisto River every year for what'll be the largest potato farm in the state.

Walther Farms is already registered with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to pump 6 billion gallons of water each year from the river at a site near Windsor. DHEC was also considering another application by the farm to pump around 3 billion more gallons each year at another site further downstream in Barnwell County.

"There are some serious concerns that we're aware of in other states about potato farming," Busbee said.

A DHEC analysis on the proposed water withdrawal says taking roughly 27 million gallons of water each day will have a "minimal near-field and far-field impact on the safe yield of the Edisto River Basin."

However, many argue the river will run dry, especially during dry summer months. DHEC's river flow data is taken from a sampling site in Denmark, which many say doesn't reflect the portion of river that runs through Aiken County.

After a fiery meeting and plenty of outcry, however, the potato farm is offering a compromise. To view the full document, click here.

The compromise plan News 12 has obtained lists a number of changes. The farm will reduce the amount it withdraws from the river by 50 percent, it will work with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to install a monitoring station that will track flow rates to "promote responsible water use and awareness," it will drill a backup well on the Aiken County portion of the farm to supplement river water during times of drought, and it will drill wells in the portion of the farm in Barnwell County (known as the Wiley Fork Farm) to avoid pumping the 3 billion gallons of water from the river that DHEC was in the process of considering.

In addition to the farms Edisto River protection plan, the farm also plans to "equip all irrigation systems with the highest efficiency technology minimizing evaporation during watering," "use precision and sustainable agricultural production practices," reduce the risk of nutrient runoff through precise metering, "discontinue the hardwood cutting along the Edisto River," "maintain an erosion control plan," and "plant over 60 acres of food plots on the upland acres that will provide supplemental food sources to wildlife."

Jason Walther, co-owner of Walther Farms, says his plan received input from Dana Beach, the Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation League. Walther says Beach, who recently toured the farm, was supportive.

"Walther Farms has read the mission statement of [Friends of the Edisto] and is committed to preserving our natural resources and promoting responsible use," the plan says. "We strongly believe we have similar goals and core values. Walther Farms would like to become a member and supporter of FRED."

"The compromise that they have proposed represents a half-million dollar investment on their part," said Hugh Weathers, Commissioner of the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.

Weathers is happy with the plan and hopes the opposition and controversy will quickly go away. Weathers wasn't sure how the delay has affected Walther Farms, but he says planting season is right around the corner. However, as the Commissioner of Agriculture, Weathers says other agricultural "investment potential" is being "hindered" by this controversy. Weathers says the unfavorable characterization of the Walther family has been very inaccurate.

Meanwhile, Busbee said the compromise is a start, but he still has fears that this river will be hurt.

"We want to be good neighbors, but we just have concerns," he said.

FRED, the conservation group that has drummed up the majority of opposition, still has active litigation against the potato farm.

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