Press Release | December 4, 2023

Groups challenge South Carolina agency’s illegal rules for major water withdrawals

Loophole allows removal of all water from rivers, harming wildlife, communities, and businesses

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Today, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a challenge to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s “safe yield” rules for large water withdrawals, which violate the state’s 2010 water withdrawal statute that guarantees that a set level of water will remain in South Carolina’s rivers and streams. The DHEC rules deny South Carolina’s rivers and clean water these protections enacted by the Legislature by allowing major agricultural corporations to remove all the water from South Carolina’s rivers and streams, leaving nothing for the people, plants, and fish downstream and destroying water quality.

In a petition filed with the department on behalf of Friends of the Edisto, American Rivers, and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation, SELC called for the repeal of these illegal rules and the reinstatement of the protections that the Legislature enacted. The DHEC rules threaten the health of rivers and the people, businesses, small farms, and endangered wildlife that rely on abundant clean water.

“Our legislature passed a law that guarantees that there will be water in rivers for families, businesses, and wildlife downstream. The DHEC rules allow major agricultural corporations to take all the water for themselves,” said Frank Holleman, Senior Attorney at SELC. “We’re asking that DHEC follow the law passed by our elected representatives and stop writing blank checks to de-water South Carolina’s rivers.”

Passed in 2010, the South Carolina Surface Water Withdrawal, Permitting, Use, and Reporting Act set permitting and reporting requirements for major water withdrawers who remove over three million gallons per month from state rivers and streams. The law says that big water users must leave certain “minimum instream flows” in rivers to protect river health, downstream wildlife, and downstream communities including fishers, swimmers, boaters, and public drinking water suppliers.

By contrast, the DHEC rules carve out a loophole for major agricultural corporations, allowing them to deplete and completely de-water South Carolina’s rivers and streams. In addition to violating state law, hefty water withdrawals under the DHEC rules can cause significant harm to clean water, rivers, fish and wildlife, and surrounding communities that rely on clean water.

Other state and federal agencies have criticized the DHEC loophole for allowing the removal of all water from rivers across South Carolina. The rules encourage unsustainable agricultural operations and draw interstate agribusiness to South Carolina to take advantage of the lax water protections. These problems will only intensify as population growth and drier, hotter summers further strain our water resources in the coming years.   

“We support sustainable agriculture and rational rules that conserve clean, abundant water for all those who need it,” said Holleman. “But the way DHEC is doing things defies common sense and endangers our precious clean water sources: rivers and streams.”

Under the law, DHEC has 30 days to respond to SELC’s petition. The agency now has an opportunity to write new rules to comply with the law and fix the problem––or it may continue risking significant harm to communities and the environment and unnecessary legal action.

“All life depends on rivers, and that is why we need to make sure South Carolina’s rivers remain healthy and flowing. Take away the water, and you no longer have a river,” said Peter Raabe, Southeast Regional Director at American Rivers. “We need rivers for clean drinking water and abundant fish and wildlife. Healthy, flowing rivers benefit communities, businesses, and all of us.”

“As Edisto Riverkeeper with Friends of the Edisto, I am personally committed to the proposition that the Edisto River should remain drinkable, fishable, swimmable, and sustainable. The surface waters of South Carolina are a fragile and irreplaceable public resource,” said Hugo Krispyn, Executive Director of Friends of the Edisto. “Our legislature included minimum instream flows in this law to protect the public’s interests. As we have for the past ten years, we call upon all parties involved to act quickly and decisively to fix this.”

“DHEC’s ‘safe yield’ rules threaten our rivers with the loss of physical processes that shape and maintain river channels and provide stable habitat for aquatic life and fish spawning, including for endangered sturgeon species. The DHEC rules also threaten the water volumes and flows needed to dilute pollutants entering our rivers and streams and to support recreational boating,” said Steve Gilbert, Special Project Manager at the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. “Under South Carolina law, DHEC has a responsibility to do better and protect river flows for the people, wildlife, and plants who need it.”

Are you a reporter and would like more information? Please visit our press contact page for a full list of SELC’s press contacts.

Press Contacts

Rachel Chu

Communications Manager (SC)

Phone: 843-720-5270
Email: [email protected]