Five years ago, Northeast Mississippi’s underground water supply faced an uncertain future. Tupelo’s constantly increasing drawdown of the Eutaw-McShan aquifer threatened not only the sufficiency of supply but the possibility of continued economic expansion.
Today, five years after Tupelo started using water from the Tombigbee River, the aquifer’s level directly beneath Tupelo has risen nearly 100 feet. Less dramatic but equally important rises in the aquifer have been documented beneath Verona, Saltillo and Plantersville. An aquifer is a formation of water-bearing rock like a giant underground lake. The Eutaw-McShan formation is the principal underground source for most of Northeast Mississippi.
Tupelo uses about 2.5 billion gallons of water per year. That kind of use created what engineers called a cone of depression under the city as the aquifer level dropped deeper and deeper. The more the city pumped from it, the broader the cone grew. The cone has shrunk dramatically in depth and breadth since 1991.
The rebound of the Eutaw-McShan, documented by the state Department of Environmental Quality, provides convincing evidence that Tupelo officials in the late 1980s made the right decision in seeking a special sales tax levied inside the city (approved by countywide referendum) to help pay for a $21 million water pipeline from the Tombigbee River near Fulton to Tupelo. The pipeline allowed the city to stop pumping underground water and switch entirely to the surface supply. Some industrial and private wells still draw from the aquifer, but their volume is not enough to adversely affect the water table.
Periodic affirmations of the decision to build the pipeline also offer a reminder that the solution was a regional political act. Tupelo doesn’t control or own the water. It is sold to the city at wholesale rates by the Northeast Mississippi Regional Water Supply District, which owns the pipeline and operates independently of Tupelo or any other city.
The water is available to guarantee residential needs and commercial expansion countywide and beyond. Extensions of and additions to the original pipeline already help guarantee major economic expansions outside the city limits.
Tupelo gains directly from the pipeline and the now-stable water supply for Northeast Mississippi. Jobs growth regionwide adds annually to sales tax revenue, which is Tupelo city government’s lifeline. Adequate water for Tupelo ensures new industrial growth and residential expansion. Tupelo, before the pipeline, faced a mandatory halt to development.
The pipeline eliminated that threat.
Tupelo and the region can grow with greater confidence because elected officials in Tupelo, Lee County and the Legislature looked at the broader public interests of Northeast Mississippi.