Most Endangered Rivers: The Plight of the Edisto

Written by: Gerrit Jobsis

The tranquil beauty of the Four Holes Swamp
Photo by Gerrit Jobsis

The following blog is a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series— Edisto River, South Carolina. Join us as we celebrate the Edisto River on our blog and social media throughout May and be sure to take action! Orvis is the corporate sponsor for American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers Report.

Rains have been abundant in South Carolina this spring, with major storms seemingly every week and rivers on the rise. Our plan was to paddle the Edisto River at Givhans Ferry State Park, but with the river 2.5 feet over flood stage we decided to take a slower paced and safer trip on Four Holes Swamp, a tributary stream that enters the Edisto just above the park. Our choice was rewarded immediately as we launched our canoe and experienced Four Holes in all its early spring glory with brilliantly green, seemingly florescent new leaves reflecting the bright sunlight of a cloudless day off the surface of this blackwater jewel.

All of South Carolina’s rivers vary greatly in flow over seasons and across years, and the abundance of water made me forget that just last summer drought-like conditions in the Edisto and Four Holes Swamp had caused great alarm. An alarm caused not as much by the naturally low flows, but by new large water withdrawals of an industrial-scale agribusiness recently allowed on the South Fork of the Edisto without public notice and without permits required of industrial and municipal water withdrawals of much smaller size. Under current law, new agribusinesses can take advantage of a legal loophole to withdraw more than one-third of the flow of the Edisto’s South Fork. New agribusinesses are not required to curtail their water use even during extreme droughts to maintain the state’s minimum stream flow standards intended to protect clean water, wildlife, and downstream water users.

Just a week after our paddle trip exploring Four Holes Swamp, American Rivers listed the entire Edisto River, from its headwaters in Lexington and Aiken counties to its estuary near Edisto Island in Charleston County, as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® because excessive water withdrawals and lax state laws give agricultural users a pass on protecting river health. The Edisto was the state’s most heavily used river by agriculture even before the new, city-sized agribusiness referred to above was built. The unfortunate truth that the Edisto River is endangered is bad enough, but it also represents what can happen to any river in South Carolina until the loophole that exempts new, large agricultural water withdrawals from state permitting is closed, and citizens are alerted of changes to how our public waters are being allocated.

May 6th is an important day for the Edisto River and all rivers of the state. It is when the Agriculture Subcommittee of the South Carolina House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee will give the first hearing to House Bill H.3564. Introduced by Representative James Smith and many bipartisan co-sponsors, H.3564 would protect water use by existing South Carolina farmers while closing the loophole that gives new, large agricultural water users a free pass from state permitting requirements. It is time for fairness among all water users – industrial, municipal, and agricultural – and for ensuring that South Carolina’s rivers will remain healthy in the future. I call on you to contact members of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee either though American Rivers’ action alert, by phone, or in person and urge them to vote in favor of H.3564.

American Rivers’ staff members discuss why this river is facing a crossroads, and what the public can do to help:

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