Groundwater levels in the state have declined over time
South Carolina state environmental officials proposed to regulate large withdrawals of groundwater from mega-farms, industries and others for the first time in a seven-county area, including Aiken and Lexington.
In a notice to media outlets, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control released a report saying it plans to require permits for anyone wanting to withdraw more than 3 million gal of groundwater per month.
The release of the plan, which must be approved by the agency’s board, is not a surprise in light of an outcry in Aiken County to better oversee large withdrawals, including those from mega vegetable farms that are suspected of affecting groundwater levels.
The plan provides details and formally sets in motion DHEC’s efforts to regulate groundwater in an area the agency previously did not think warranted oversight. Studies dating to 2004 have called for regulation in the state’s inner coastal plain, and DHEC’s report Friday finally agrees that seven of those counties need oversight. It says big farms and public water supply demands are lowering groundwater.
The agency’s report says: “Water level declines in the aquifer systems of concern have been influenced by an increase in population, public water supply use and agricultural activities using groundwater and a series of long-standing droughts that have reduced recharge to the aquifer systems.’’
Groundwater levels have declined in one aquifer from 5 to 15 ft, depending on the county, since 2001. Aquifers are large pockets of saturated earth that, when pumped, produce water. They often are separated by layers of clay. In this case, DHEC says the aquifers are connected, and those who use groundwater are pulling from the same water supply.
“As the development of the groundwater resource continues, further water level declines will be expected and the potential for adverse impacts to current and future groundwater users will become more frequent and serious over time,’’ the report said.
DHEC will now begin seeking input from the public, and agency staff expects to take the plan to the DHEC board in October 2017 for a vote on whether to impose groundwater controls in the seven-county area. Counties to be regulated are Aiken, Lexington, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Calhoun and Orangeburg. To get permits, large water users would go through a review period and the public would be allowed to comment, a process that does not now exist in these counties.