Hed: Area’s underground water level continues to rise
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The underground water level in Northeast Mississippi has been steadily on the rise since the city of Tupelo stopped tapping that source in 1991.
And that continual rise has had a number of positive effects on surrounding communities that still depend on underground water coming from the Eutaw-McShan aquifer. First and foremost, it has guaranteed a source of water for the area. But there also are other positives.
“It (the increase in the level of the underground water supply) has cut down on the wear and tear on our pumps,” said Saltillo Mayor W.K. Webb. “We were pumping sand before Tupelo went to the surface water supply.”
Webb does not know the levels of increase of the water in the underground rock formation known as the Eutaw-McShan aquifer. Casual observations, though, tell him that it is rising.
Since ever-growing Tupelo stopped drawing water from the aquifer in 1991, Webb has not had to replace or repair any pump motors. Three pump motors were repaired or replaced (at a total cost of about $60,000) in Saltillo the two years before Tupelo changed its source of water to the Tombigbee River in Peppertown.
But the reduction in pump repair and replacement is not the only savings the town of Saltillo in northern Lee County has experienced. Not as much electricity is needed to pump water since levels have increased. Before Tupelo changed water sources, it was costing Saltillo about $1,200 in electricity each month to pump 5 million gallons. Now it costs the town about $1,300 in electricity to pump 10 million gallons a month.
“It definitely made a difference,” Webb said.
The Department of Environmental Quality backs up Webb’s observation with scientific data. Last week, Charles Branch, head of the DEQ’s land and water resources division, gave a presentation on the rising aquifer level at the state Commission on Environmental Quality’s monthly meeting.
At the meeting, Branch presented a table showing how the water level had risen 120 feet directly under Tupelo. The level of increase is more dramatic underneath Tupelo or close to it. But the increase in water level is apparent throughout Lee County and thus probably the whole region. The water level had risen 75 feet in Verona, 60 feet in Plantersville and 25 feet in Saltillo.
In essence, when Tupelo customers were using the aquifer, they were drawing water from throughout the underground formation that serves about 14 counties.
“It (the increase) is occurring at a more rapid rate than we predicted,” Branch said.
New source necessary
While Branch is pleasantly surprised at the level of increase, he knew in the 1980s that Tupelo had to do something. Branch’s office essentially forced Tupelo to look for an alternative water supply. Harry Martin, president of the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation, said DEQ was in the process of halting all building in Tupelo unless the city found an alternative water source.
After countless studies, city leaders decided the best alternative would be to construct a system to draw water from the Tombigbee River in Itawamba County.
The water system and pipeline – minus the additions being made to other communities – cost about $21 million. The state Legislature passed a one-fourth cent sales tax increase for the city of Tupelo to help pay for the system. Martin said the Northeast Mississippi Regional Water Supply System has received about $10 million in federal grants and loans to help with the project.
Receiving water from the system are not only Tupelo, but also the Turner Industrial Park in north Lee County and the South Lee Industrial Park near Verona. The system could transport water as far as Baldwyn to the north and Shannon to the south.
Martin said it is truly a regional system. Water associations to the east of Tupelo along the pipeline and communities in northern and southern Lee County can switch to the surface water supplied by the regional system if they choose.
Even though the underground water level is rising, Webb said Saltillo probably will hook onto the system one day. It probably would be less expensive than digging new wells. Saltillo already has 28 new houses on the surface water system.
Even if the communities in the area do not hook onto the surface water system, it helps them because, as Webb pointed out, it provides a higher level of groundwater to draw from.
“We (Tupelo customers) were absolutely destroying the aquifer,” Martin said. “That was one of of the things we needed to stabilize to help us go through unprecedented growth.”
And by all accounts it is working. The area has a stable water supply – both on the surface and underground. And Lee County is growing.
Just this past year, Martin said Lee County netted 2,160 new jobs. Lee is now third to Hinds and Harrison in the number of people employed. And according to the mid-term census update, Tupelo is the 10th fastest growing county in the state.
Without a dependable source of water, Branch and Martin both said that growth could not have occurred.