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South Carolina factory potato farm river water usage fuels local concerns

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Recent reports in area papers have expressed concern about SCDHEC's (SC Dept. of Health and Environmental Control's) issuance of permits to withdraw surface waters from the South Edisto River for use by Walther Farms in their potato chip manufacturing operation. Well, at least potato chips are what we are told the potato farm's produce will eventually become. Of course what the water is used for is immaterial to the concerns of the outdoorsmen, environmentalists, and politician watchers who point out possible problems with both the permitting process and the withdrawals themselves.

In an article in The State newspaper, reporter Sammy Fretwell discusses Walther Farms' plans to withdraw up to 9.6 billion gallons a year from the South Edisto River, a small South Carolina blackwater river, to irrigate its crop. According to Fretwell's article, DHEC reports the mean annual daily flow of the river to be about 241 million gallons per day. DHEC also suggests that Walther's withdrawals would be a little less than 27 million gallons a day, less than ten percent of the river's average daily flow.

What is a more relevant comparison would be to compare the withdrawal allowance with the river's minimum flow amount since agricultural irrigation needs during high rain periods, when the river flows are maximized, are, essentially zero gallons per day while those irrigation needs during our occasional periods of drought are maximal. If the state permit allows a maximum of 27 million gallons a day, and withdrawals of that amount are acceptable, that might protect the river from excessive depletion during those low flow periods. If they are given a monthly flow allowance, the protection could be more than just problematic.

Water flow on the South Edisto near Cope, in Bamberg County (From the USGS site http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis) yields a maximum flow in 1998: 1226cfs (cubic feet per second); a minimum flow in 2002: 303cfs; and the most recent data in 2012: 331cfs. These flow measurements are taken miles downstream from the Walther withdrawal point and could be reporting considerably higher flows than might be available near the farm in Windsor. Still, the minimum flow of 303cfs translates to 136 MGD, with 27 MGD being about 13.9 percent of that total. If the 303cfs is higher than the flow at Windsor by a factor of two (the watershed from the river's headwaters to Aiken State Park near Windsor is about half the watershed to the USGS measurement device near Cope), Walther will be using over a third of the river's flow on a low flow year--considerably more than the less than ten percent which DHEC used in its determinations.

Of course when we look at water withdrawal only, we ignore other potentially deleterious effects this withdrawal could have on the river ecology. Unless the withdrawal is heavily screened, or, even better, made from a separate pond which collects its river water by seepage, the potential for destruction of much aquatic life is a real concern. Top water minnows, of the gambusia variety, produce fry which are about small enough to pass through normal household window screening. The adult minnows themselves are small enough to be sucked up, chopped up, and pumped through a small household sump pump. Newly hatched fry from other stream minnows, the blacknose dace (what we used to call a one-inch fish found in area streams--but which do not look quite like the picture in wikipedia), e.g., are even smaller than the gambusia fry. These and other various creatures of the river would face an unfortunate fate, depending on the protection (or lack of protection) the draw-off piping has in place. Major quantities of the river's smallest creatures could find themselves deposited as low-level fertilizer on the potato fields. Was this considered prior to the permit issuance? If not, is there any good reason why protection cannot and should not be required now?

Additionally, the conversion of forest land to potato field could alter the stream's ecology on its own. I say could--it may already have, if sufficient runoff control was not required. Years ago, when much construction was afoot in the North Augusta area and areas upstream, the Savannah River flowed orange due to all the Georgia Clay (from both sides of the river) that was allowed to flow into the river. Surely this was not good for the Savannah. Similar pollution would wreak even more havoc on the South Edisto. There may be no fry to be had at this time. Then, again, this may not even be a problem. All this depends on what protections our state required of the new landlords.

Considerations discussed above, and other questions can and should be answered by the State. According to a recent article in the AikenStandard, a meeting is to be held at the Aiken Electric Coop offices at 2790 Wagener Road East of Aiken, SC, on January 7 at 6:30 PM. The meeting is to be a public forum to discuss registering agricultural surface water withdrawals. While the meeting is not a formal public hearing, a question and answer period is expected to follow.

If you feel you have questions you would like the state to discuss at this meeting, you should send them in advance to Jim Beasley, DHEC spokesman at beaslejc@dhec.sc.gov to allow DHEC to be prepared to answer. If your questions are non-specific, you could email Mr. Beasley and refer him to this article at this link: http://www.examiner.com/article/south-carolina-factory-potato-farm-river-water-usage-fuels-local-concerns .

If you have questions about the political process, and how this law came to be (did Walther Farms write it?), you probably should address them to State Senator Robert W. Hayes, Jr., the "chief proponent" (per previously stated news articles) of the 2010 law. You can use the SC Legislature's email form page at http://www.scstatehouse.gov/email.php?T=M&C=804545358 to reach him. Again, you can pass on your specific concerns or simply pass on the above link to this article.

In any case, if you are coming to DHEC's meeting on January 7, perhaps we'll see each other. Hopefully, all the public's questions and concerns will be answered at that meeting. Thanks for your concern about our local Central Savannah River Area environment, and thank you for following Examiner.com.

Needless to say, except as a reminder, if you have friends you feel would appreciate hearing about this situation, the author would appreciate your emailing the link to this article to those friends.

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