Some Lexington County farmers will be affected by DHEC Bureau of Water Board vote
Columbia, SC (Paul Kirby) - The SC Department of Health and Environmental Control’s (DHEC) Bureau of Water Board voted to implement a new regulation known as "Western Capacity Use Designation" Thursday. This regulation would require anyone who uses more than three million gallons of water per month to apply for a permit from that agency to use the water. For most of us, we can’t even begin to think about that in terms of water usage. For some of Lexington County’s large farming operations, it’s a drop in the bucket. This could mean several would need the new permit. Lexington County is just one of seven counties included in the new regulation.
Environmentalists and small property owners who border areas where these large farms are say that some river levels have gone down as much as 10-15% in recent years. They are also concerned about the large aquafers that are under the ground. Wells used to supply some of the pivot irrigators on mega-farms draw from these. Pivots are the large sprinkler systems that “pivot” around a center post on tractor tires to water crops automatically. Most of those draw out on the ground using large, very deep commercial wells. Unfortunately, so do many of the homes and small properties that surround them. Municipal water for drinking comes from large plants owned by the City of West Columbia, and to a lesser extent Columbia, that draw water from Lake Murray. They are permitted in a completely different fashion.
Mega-farms that require large amounts of water are extremely important to the economy of Lexington County. Several like W.P. Rawl in Pelion and Clayton Rawl Farms in the Gilbert area require a great deal of water to operate. They also provide various produce that feeds millions of people and are important across the state and the entire country.
The new DHEC regulation would make the permits good for just 5 years. Farmers have said they aren’t necessarily opposed to the permits, they just want them to be good for 10 years. That way, they can better plan for when they’ll need to apply for them and the financial burdens their irrigation systems and the permitting puts on their operations. These pivot systems are extremely expensive and as a farm grows, the need for water will too. At some point, the need for additional water and the limits of a permit may conflict.
DHEC is leaving it up to the counties to develop a plan for the permitting. Groups that included farmers, conservation groups, and others will have some input. These means it could take them several months to develop these plans that will then be presented to the Water Board for approval. Only after that final approval, will the permits begin being issued.