Aquifer capacity use debate rages on in Aiken County as DHEC meeting approaches
The vast majority of Aiken County uses groundwater from aquifers for cooking, bathing, drinking and farming. However, trends have emerged from data collected by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control that show aquifer levels have been dropping over the past few decades.
Aiken City Council first requested Aiken be considered for Capacity Use in July 2016.
The city’s request followed growing concerns from some Windsor citizens over a 2,000-acre potato farm that came to Aiken in 2013.
“I’m concerned with what’s going to happen if we don’t protect that water for future generations,” Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon said. Osbon confirmed the city is still in support of capacity use for parts of Aiken.
These so-called “mega-farms” are a large part of South Carolina’s agricultural economy. However, concerns are being raised over whether the drain of mega-farms on South Carolina’s water supply is too much for the aquifers to handle.
DHEC’s studies and aquifer trends
DHEC’s recent report titled ” A Preliminary Assessment of the Groundwater Conditions ” analyzed trends in aquifers across the seven counties in the proposed Western Capacity Use Area. The trends show – although groundwater levels fluctuate over time – they have been gradually declining in some areas, over the course of decades before some mega-farms even came to the state.
In the study, the McQueen aquifer, an important source of groundwater for residents and farms in Aiken, was observed to have declined roughly 5 feet since 2001.
“My concern is not necessarily that we’re in a crisis today,” County Council Chairman Gary Bunker said. “But it’s what we’re looking at tomorrow, and we want to be within a regulatory framework that, if and when worse comes to worst, we have an option to be able to do something about that.”
Water, Bunker said, is a finite resource. Some western areas of the country have already experienced shortages due to droughts.
The concern raised is whether the unregulated use of water withdrawal in Aiken by mega-farms adds an additional strain on an already finite resource. As population increases and the demand for water increases, shortages are already potentially at play.
“Demands on the groundwater resource will continue to increase with a growing population,” states the assessment.
According to the assessment, the population of Aiken County was 160,099 in 2010 and is expected to increase to nearly 182,500 by 2030, a 14 percent population increase. Other areas of South Carolina, particulalry along the coast, are growing more rapidly.
The DHEC assessment “reported groundwater withdrawals in the region have steadily increased and groundwater level declines have been observed” in the counties of concern and as declines are expected to continue, adverse impacts to the aquifers will become “more frequent and serious over time.”
To allow aquifers the chance to rebound, the DHEC report says regulation “may be needed” and is gathering public input on the issue. A public meeting will be held in Columbia on Sept. 13 to discuss the proposed Western Capacity Use Area, which would include parts of Aiken County.
What would capacity use mean for Aiken?
Capacity Use is a DHEC program requiring a permit be approved for withdrawal and use of 3 million gallons of water (or more) from aquifers.
Four capacity use areas currently exist in South Carolina, but Aiken is currently unregulated for groundwater withdrawal.
Although capacity use requires permits, DHEC rarely denies these permits to farms, individuals or organizations.
Support and Opposition
In addition to city and county officials, those in support of Capacity Use in Aiken include grassroots organizations, citizen activists and some small farmers.
Concerned Citizens Safeguarding South Carolina Water, a local group interested in aquifer impacts to small farmers, claim “small farmers will be some of the first ones hurt” if capacity use is not considered.
Aiken Land Conservancy is also in support of capacity use.
The S.C. Farm Bureau is among those not in favor of capacity use in Aiken currently.
The Farm Bureau said it is “paramount these decisions are made after the work of updating the 2004 State Water Plan is complete, all of the facts are reviewed, and public input is provided” in a press release.
The organization also states more government regulations, without further scientific study on how much current water withdrawal impacts aquifers, should not be put in place due to a “community conflict which began in Aiken County.”
“We are not opposed to capacity use,” said Stephanie Sox, director of Promotion and Education with S.C. Farm Bureau. “However, we do not believe that new regulation should be placed on farmers without enough scientific study.”
Sox said the farm bureau would prefer a decision be made on capacity use following the results of a study that will be completed in February 2019, and that if the data supports the need for capacity use, then the farm bureau will support the state’s decision.
Bunker said he does not think mega-farms are “villains” in this situation, and no complex issue like aquifer decline is black-and-white.
“They’re doing nothing that any good businessman wouldn’t do,” Bunker said. “But when you see one farm taking nearly as much water as the city of Aiken draws, that should tell us that this is something we have to look at.”
The public meeting on the Proposed Western Capacity Use area will be held at 10 a.m. on Sept. 13 at 2600 Bull Street in Columbia.