Capacity use 001 (copy)

Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, speaking with district representatives on DHEC's board during the Nov. 8 meeting.

After years of allowing unfettered access to underground water, South Carolina has taken an important step in protecting its aquifers by agreeing to keep closer tabs on withdrawals in the farming-dense, seven-county region around Aiken.

The new rules aren’t expected to hurt about 300 big water users in the region, and the permitting process, coupled with a groundwater study due in February, should help the Department of Health and Environmental Control better manage groundwater supplies.

After all, surface and groundwater supplies – layers of water that filter down into a network of aquifers – are interconnected and do not recognize man-made boundaries. And though South Carolina is relatively rich in freshwater, supplies aren’t unlimited. It would be foolhardy to let mega-farms and large industrial users pump away with abandon.

Though opposed by the politically influential S.C. Farm Bureau, the permitting plan was supported local officials, environmental groups, the public and state Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken.

Yes, farming is still the state’s biggest industry. It supports about 98,000 jobs and has an economic impact estimated at $41.7 billion. But farmers should see the regulations as a means of protecting their way of life. The permits will be free and won’t affect smaller operations.

The still-developing permit system is a first for DHEC’s proposed Western Capacity Use Area, which includes Aiken, Bamberg, Lexington, Burwell, Allendale, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties. Similar regulations are already in place elsewhere, including the coastal region where groundwater use has decreased.

In the tri-county area, groundwater use has declined since peaking around 2002 when DHEC established the Trident Capacity Use Area – good evidence that the agency’s permitting approach is working.

Until now, there have been no limits on groundwater withdrawals in the Aiken-Lexington area, and the new regulations won’t limit withdrawals, just require permits for big users.

Groundwater levels in the Edisto River Basin have been dropping steadily for about 20 years, 5-15 feet in most areas and temporarily up to 40 feet in spots, according to DHEC, which voted Nov. 8 to start requiring permits for withdrawals of 3 million gallons or more per month.

The decision was driven in part by the arrival of large-scale, out-of-state farming operations in recent years. Together, they have withdrawn billions of gallons per year from ground and surface water sources. That lowered water levels in the south fork of the Edisto River and apparently contributed to a few nearby residential wells running low or dry, according to a series in The (Columbia) State newspaper last year.

DHEC must continue to work with the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey to better understand aquifer flow models and establish safe withdrawal limits.

Water is life – for farmers, industry, wildlife and South Carolina’s growing population. Protecting groundwater and surface sources are essential for our state’s long-term health and prosperity.

— Post and Courier, Charleston