Potato farm will take billions of gallons from Edisto River

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Friday, Dec. 20, 2013

WINDSOR, S.C. (WRDW) -- It's a quiet, pristine river that Doug Busbee grew up on.

"If it doesn't connect you with God, I don't know what will," he says, as he glides his dinged up jon boat through the long, winding blackwater river.

In fact, the Edisto River, which runs from Saluda and Edgefield Counties to the coast, is considered the longest free-flowing blackwater river in North America. The southern fork of the river, the South Edisto River, runs through central Aiken County. Busbee has called the waters of the river home since he was just seven years old.

"Look around! Look around! Look at what you see now!" says Busbee. "This is nothing but pure pristine beauty. This is our Grand Canyon."

But Busbee showed News 12 a spot on the river that is causing major concern. After a stretch of canopied blackwater bordered by Cypress knees and gum trees, there is a noticeable clearing. A concrete structure is now present along the border of the river. The land behind it is cleared of vegetation and now covered in red dirt. Busbee says this is the area where millions of water will be pumped from the river each day.

"If I hadn't have come down this river, with the rumors that we heard, if we hadn't have made the trip, it's fifty bends back up the river, which is a long way!" he says.

Busbee says the massive agricultural endeavor has been under wraps. Soon, 9.6 billion gallons of water will be pumped from the river each year for what will be the largest potato farm in the state. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has given the green-light to Walther Farms, headquartered in Michigan, to pump 805 million gallons of water from the river each month.

"What does the 'E' in DHEC stand for? Does is stand for environment?" asks Busbee rhetorically. "I'd like DHEC to immediately stop it!"

However, 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." But Busbee says even a minimal impact could hurt the shallow river that's only 20 ft. wide and 3 ft. deep in some places.

"If we want to grow potatoes in this state, I'm not against it, but let's at least look at it real hard before we grow potatoes," says Busbee.

However, Busbee says the issue hasn't been properly vetted.

A 2010 state law, meant to protect large withdrawals of water from rivers, gave a big exemption to farmers. The law says if a farmer wants to withdraw more than 300 million gallons from a river each month, a public notice period or public hearing isn't necessary.

That's why Busbee says he didn't know about the potato farm until very recently, and now he and others are saying the law should be changed and that this case could set a big precedent.

Walther Farms grows potatoes for Frito-Lay. An aerial video posted by the new Facebook group "Edisto Concerns" appears to show thousands of acres cleared for the endeavor. News 12 called Walther Farms but never heard back.

However, DHEC Director Catherine Templeton issued this statement: "Although this regulation was on the books when I came into office, DNR and DHEC recognized the need for SC to have a scientifically based water plan. As a result, we have worked for the past two years to get funding to measure the 8 basins that supply water for recreation, fishing, boating, wildlife, utilities, farming, and domestic use so all of these stakeholders could understand and plan for the division of our natural resources. We are appreciative that the General Assembly recognized this critical need so our water resources are protected."

DHEC has announced an informational forum. The forum will be on Tuesday, January 7 at 6:30 PM at the Aiken Electric Cooperative building at 2790 Wagener Road.

"Please note this is not a formal public hearing for the purpose of receiving input on a DHEC decision," the DHEC notice reads.

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