Conservationists have called for tighter laws when it comes to withdrawing water from South Carolina rivers, and it seems that state legislators have been listening.

S.C. Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, is pitching a proposed bill that would require large agricultural businesses to file for a permit rather than a registration for water withdrawal, and he plans to introduce it this week. The bill was prompted by recent concerns about a large potato farm in Aiken County that wants to pull water from the South Edisto River.

Campsen discussed his bill at a meeting held with conservationists on Wednesday morning, which Conservation Voters of South Carolina Executive Director Ann Timberlake attended. She said Campsen stated this would close a “loophole” in the state's current Surface Water Withdrawal, Permitting Use, and Reporting Act that was passed in 2010.

In April, Walther Farms, which owns several thousand acres in the Windsor area, received approval from the Department of Health and Environmental Control to draw up to 805 million gallons of water monthly from the river for its operations.

Another surface water withdrawal registration application from the farm is currently being reviewed by SCDHEC.

Conservationists across the state have been concerned about the large amount of water that the farm will pull from the blackwater river.

Timberlake said there are several reasons why obtaining a permit is a stricter, more thorough process than getting a registration.

A permit would require public notice unlike a registration. It would also require that SCDHEC receive consultation from the Department of Natural Resources “to quantify the stream flow that would require a reduction in the applicant's water withdrawal because of inadequate stream flow at withdrawal point.”

Another factor of a permit is there is a curtailment during drought conditions that is not required in a registration, Timberlake added.

The Friends of the Edisto, an organization that strives to preserve the river, was also at the meeting on Wednesday and some of its members said they felt encouraged.

Murphy Lybrand, Friends member and resident of Wagener, said Campsen seemed confident in his bill.

“I'm feeling more optimistic now than I have in the past several months,” Lybrand said.

Doug Busbee, another member of the Friends, said he's happy to see any progress but wants to move forward cautiously and assure they move in the right direction. He said the last bill approved in 2010 was passed without any anticipation of a water withdrawal with such magnitude as what Walther Farms has requested.

“We want to protect the real South Carolina farmers,” Busbee said. “We don't want to hurt them.”

South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers did not feel it was appropriate to comment on legislation that has yet been introduced but said before the surface water withdrawal act was passed in 2010, there was no regulatory process.

He added that the current law does not exempt agriculture except for farm pond withdrawals.

“What has been a very public debate over Walther Farms' surface water withdrawal registration has recently had some behind-the-scenes constructive dialogue that will hopefully resolve concerns over the farm's water usage and that will also allow Walther Farms to demonstrate their focus on sustainability and good stewardship of the Edisto River,” Weathers said.

Calls to Campsen were unreturned by press time.

Repeated attempts to reach Walther Farms have also been unsuccessful.

Amy Banton is the County reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the publication since May 2010.

She is a native of Rustburg, Va. and a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman's College.