PICKENS COUNTY — Water is a driving force behind virtually every facet of life in South Carolina — from agriculture, recreation and tourism to essential needs like food and drink. But water is both among the Palmetto State’s greatest assets and biggest challenges.
A December 2016 study by Clemson University professors found natural resource-based sectors contribute $33.4 billion in economic activity annually to the state’s economy. Of the six sectors analyzed, four of them — fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing ($2.7 billion); coastal tourism ($9 billion); commercial fisheries ($42 million); and the boat industry ($1 billion) — rely intrinsically on the state’s water to keep them afloat.
A precipitous rise in extreme weather events — droughts in 2015 that caused 35 counties to be declared primary natural disaster areas followed a month later by floods that caused over $375 million in economic losses to the agribusiness industry — threatens to diminish the state’s capacity to provide water to homes, power plants and recreation.
“Do we have the tools, do we have the information to make decisions, small and large, in the face of weather extremes we have recently witnessed?” said Calvin Sawyer, associate professor in Clemson’s Department of Agricultural Sciences and Clemson Extension water resources specialist. “In December, it was snowing here in South Carolina while on the other side of the country it was burning. What Clemson is trying to do is develop those tools and equip the citizens, policymakers and growers with information they can use to adapt to a changing climate.
Clemson Public Service and Agriculture stands uniquely poised to secure and shape the future of this vital natural resource in the state.
Farmers on the front line
Among the voices calling for further understanding of South Carolina’s water resources are the state’s farmers.
For the farmers, who saw a dry heat wave in summer 2017 followed by a record cold spell in January, extreme weather events like these further muddy the water picture.
John Long, owner of Overbridge Farm in Newberry, said water and its availability make all the difference for the state’s farmers between a successful year and an unsuccessful one.
“I get the feeling over the years that we’re getting less rainfall at the critical times when we need it,” he said. “And when we do get the rainfall, it’s really more than we need. I don’t know if that’s just my feeling or if there actually is some science to that, so anything that Clemson could do to help us understand that better would be very helpful on the farm.”
At Titan Farms in Saluda County, the largest peach grower on the East Coast, chief executive officer Chalmers Carr sees a mounting dilemma as the state seeks to balance water demand among residents, industries and those who produce its food.
“Water is going to be the next big crisis in agriculture … and we have to find that balance,” Carr said. “But the only way to do that is through sound science. Clemson has the technology that can be used to figure out the best way to move forward while still producing the freshest, safest food supply in the world at the cheapest prices for everybody who lives here and enjoys it.”
Water as science
Having a sound science-based report that can support the decision-making process for agencies such as the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) is key to helping balance water demand.
As the state’s primary land-grant institution — with a clear mission of teaching, research and outreach — Clemson has a plan in place to do just that.
As part of that plan, the University is proposing a new Water Resource Research, Management and Technology program as well as a statewide Water Resources Center (WRC), which would establish a base for comprehensive water programs and create a Southeastern regional hub for conducting analytical water-related research.
The program’s goal would be to provide South Carolina greater “resiliency in the face of the unknown,” said Jeff Allen, director of Clemson’s South Carolina Water Resources Center.
Spreading the water message
Clemson’s water work isn’t just about establishing new programs and research, it is also building on existing initiatives.
Carolina Clear is a national award-winning program of Clemson Cooperative Extension and the Clemson University Center for Watershed Excellence. Agents work collaboratively with more than 30 state communities and dozens of non-profit groups, colleges, universities and agencies to inform target audiences about water quality, quantity and the cumulative effects of stormwater.
Clemson’s team of Water Resources Extension Agents are located in the regions they serve, and strive to protect water resources and encourage pollution prevention by providing programs that raise awareness of stormwater issues and promote actions and behaviors that ultimately protect South Carolina’s water resources.
Among other Clemson Extension programs striving to shepherd the state’s water resources, the S.C. Adopt-A-Stream program is led in a partnership among DHEC, Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the Center for Watershed Excellence. Volunteers are trained annually by certified trainers to become stewards and monitors of South Carolina rivers.
Ken Rentiers, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) deputy director for land, water and conservation, said collaboration would be the key to effective water resources management for the state as it moves forward.
“As the SCDNR moves forward with updating the state water plan, our partnerships with DHEC, the United States Geological Survey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Clemson University and stakeholders will help to ensure the wise management and future availability of our state’s precious water resources,” he said.
Connecting technology and sustainable farming
The day-to-day work of Clemson Extension with the state’s farmers is — and will continue to be — a big part of the state’s success when it comes to managing water resources by combining science with in-the-field use
Take Coosaw Farms in Hampton and Allendale counties, for example.
The family-owned farm is already among the most advanced watermelon and blueberry growing operations in the Mid-Atlantic, but Brad and Angela O’Neal believed they could do more to reduce water usage.
“We have always supported and believed in research and innovation,” said Angela O’Neal, the farm’s director of sustainability and marketing. “It’s at our core at Coosaw, an inherent part of our sustainability plan and leadership.”
So, Coosaw Farms partnered with Clemson Extension vegetable specialist Gilbert Miller, who has had a longstanding working relationship with the family, to create a wise water usage plan.
What followed was a joint effort to integrate sensors that monitor soil moisture into a plasticulture system to gauge irrigation water depth and maximize efficiency at the farm.
What the O’Neal siblings, fourth-generation watermelon growers, learned was that in some areas the irrigation wasn’t deep enough to meet the plant’s needs, other areas uncovered a need for a reduction in water use, while in other areas the farmers could increase conservation through better utilization of the water being applied.
Sensor-based irrigation improved the precision and efficiency of water use and increased efficiency for the farmers. While the sensor-based irrigation system provides near-real-time information, reporting moisture levels every 15 minutes, it also requires vast technical expertise and complex transmitting and software systems in order for the entire process to function seamlessly.
“The point we’re at now with sensor-based irrigation, I would equate it to the point we were at with the bag phones,” said Miller, who operates out of Clemson’s Edisto Research and Education Center. “It’s a fantastic idea, and it’s going to happen. But there’s got to be a better infrastructure set up for maintaining it on the farm in the future.”
With the potential for a state water crisis looming, and a lack of appropriate data to combat it, Clemson’s vision is to evolve into a more complete resource for state agencies charged with natural resources management, regulation and protection.
Making these advances while water is still plentiful will ensure that South Carolina’s most vital natural resource is sustainably managed to meet the needs of future generations — both for farmers and the residents of the state nourished by the food they grow.
Reach Steven Bradley at 864-656-3311.