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

The board of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control unanimously approved the proposed Western Capacity Use Area for Aiken and six other South Carolina counties.

Capacity Use is a DHEC program that requires entities that withdraw more than 3 million gallons of groundwater from aquifers to acquire permits and report their groundwater use to DHEC.

The decision came following an executive session and a public hearing, during which the board listened to testimony, research, and opinions from anyone who wished to speak on the proposed capacity use after DHEC employees presented their own research on the aquifers.

DHEC's studies, which go back years, show significant groundwater decline in aquifers across the state, including aquifers that supply Aiken with its groundwater.

Although groundwater levels fluctuate over time, there has been a steady decline in overall supply over the years the research has been collected.

A major concern is how so called 'mega-farms' and industrial businesses, some of which draw billions of gallons of groundwater for their purposes, would affect that resource.

Due to these studies, which found that demand would only increase over time as population in areas like Aiken continue to increase, DHEC employees suggested capacity use be implemented in the potentially affected areas.

Aiken County Council requested portions of Aiken be considered for capacity use back in 2016. Following an assessment of groundwater conditions in 2017, DHEC suggested Aiken should be brought into the capacity use program.

People traveled from across the state to be at the meeting, which was held at 10 a.m. in Columbia. Many of the speakers came from Aiken County.

Among those in favor of capacity use were Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon, County Council Chairman Gary Bunker, representatives from various organizations across the state (most of them environmental), small farmers, and concerned citizens.

One citizen from Windsor claimed she turned her sink on one day to find she had no water, as the levels in her well had plummeted after a large farm moved close to where she lived.

Others raised concerns over how increased demand would affect the supply for future generations. 

"At this point, the impact is felt mostly on private well owners and recreational users of the Edisto River," Bunker said during the hearing. "But it doesn't take much imagination to see how – if current trends continue – this issue will grow to the point where further growth and economic expansion are impacted by the limits of our region's fresh water supply."

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District representatives listen to testimony from speakers during a public hearing on Thursday over the proposed Western Capacity Use Area.

Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, said the full blame couldn't be placed on mega-farms, but said he was pleased with the outcome of the vote.

"We're all called on to be stewards to that precious resource," Taylor said. "...We can't be kicking the can down the road on this water issue."

Of the 25 speakers who voiced their opinions, experiences, and information they had collected, the South Carolina Farm Bureau, represented by President Harry Ott, was the main entity opposed to imposing capacity use during Thursday's meeting.

"We do not believe the science exists and is completed as we stand here today," Ott said. "...I want to remind this panel that agriculture is the number one industry in the state of South Carolina."

Ott said the Farm Bureau is not against capacity use, but believes DHEC's yearly studies are not adequate enough to warrant capacity use currently.

Despite Ott's stance, some other farmers present at the meeting, including one who claimed to be with the Farm Bureau, argued in favor for capacity use, saying that a shortage of water would be detrimental to residents and big farmers alike.

"We have a groundwater resource problem in our state," said Laura Bagwell, a Farm Bureau member and geologist from Aiken. "It's widespread, it's not new, we've had it for years. And it's getting worse."

Bagwell fired back at Farm Bureau arguments that the science wasn't "completed" by saying that science is a "cumulative process" that is never complete, but rather is a series of studies, where each builds upon the next.

DHEC scientists proposed the entire coastal plain be included in capacity use programs as early as 2004, when evidence of groundwater decline began to crop up in their studies.

The Western capacity use area will also include Bamberg, Lexington, Barnwell, Allendale, Calhoun and Orangeburg Counties.

Four other capacity use programs currently exist across South Carolina. 

Stakeholder meetings will take place so input from affected parties, including large-scale farmers, can be brought into the capacity use program at the local level, which varies slightly from area to area based on what drives capacity use.

DHEC's Alex Butler also said the goal is not to prevent people from using water, but rather to make sure they're drawing it from the right area and right source so other users are not negatively impacted. Sometimes the solution involves industries and farms pumping water from deeper aquifers, rather than from shallower areas were resident wells rely on groundwater.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.