Lee free water was a drop in the financial bucket

By Emily Le Coz | NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Mitchell Scruggs potentially used an estimated 686,000 gallons of free water annually on his vast farming operations as part of his relationship with the North Lee County Water Association.
That’s nearly $2,500 in annual savings to the former utility board president, and roughly $50,000 over the course of his two-decade tenure with the association.
Other farmers also benefited from free water, available through unmetered taps scattered throughout the utility district.
They included former board members like Jimmy Bucy and Hal Swann. Both cultivate several hundred acres each, according to Lee County tax records. And they potentially used an estimated $100 to $250 in free water annually, according to calculations based on North Lee’s rates and average per-acre water consumption for unirrigated farms.
Bucy told the Daily Journal he probably used about 5,000 gallons per year but didn’t know for sure. Farmers spray their fields on average, two to six times annually, depending on the crop and that year’s conditions. Most mix the chemicals with 10 gallons of water for every acre sprayed, according to interviews with nearly one dozen farmers.
Scruggs told the Daily Journal in a previous interview he grows 1,200 acres of wheat, 2,500 acres of corn, 5,200 acres of cotton and 10,000 acres of soybeans.
Wheat and corn are sprayed an average of twice annually, soybeans three times annually and cotton about six times. Multiply that by North Lee’s rate – $10.30 for the first three gallons per month and $3.55 for each 1,000 gallons afterward – and it adds up. None of the farmers used the water to irrigate, Scruggs said.
North Lee itself doesn’t know how much free water went to the farmers – or to anybody else who knew about the unmetered taps – because it doesn’t track its total output versus total billable gallons.
The lost income hardly hurt the utility’s bottom line – it billed nearly $1 million last year to its 4,400 ratepayers. And it likely was a meager savings for farmers, especially Scruggs, who is one of the area’s most prominent businessmen.
But it’s significant in that the average North Lee customer pays $205 for a year’s worth of water that others were getting for free.
The practice started decades ago when the association put unmetered spigots on farmers’ properties in exchange for free use of their land to lay pipes, dig wells and do other work. The farmers had access to free water for their crops and chemicals, and the association also could use the spigots as flush valves.
“Farmers don’t mind paying for the water,” Scruggs told the Daily Journal on Friday. “It’s not that much money. It’s just the way things were done.”
But that practice ended last month when an interim board took over the association and voted to meter all valves and to charge all board members the same rates as regular customers.
Scruggs, who said the taps on his property had been installed when he was a child, already put down his deposit for new meters on his taps.
North Lee’s not the only utility to give away free water, though. City Point Water Association, based in Plantersville, lets farmers fill up without paying through the same sort of arrangement, said board President Joe Hester.
“There are very few that use it now, but in years past more farmers used it,” Hester said. “I don’t know that anyone used it this year.”
Scruggs said it has been common practice among rural water associations throughout this part of the state and that he and others have used free water from several local systems, including City Point. Other water associations contacted, though, said they do not, nor did they ever, allow farmers access to free water.
“We don’t do anything for free,” said David Faust of the Mooreville-Richmond Water Association, adding that farmers actually pay higher rates to hook into the 2-inch fill-up lines.
Mississippi Rural Water Association CEO Kirby Mayfield could not be reached to weigh in on the matter. But Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said giving away water isn’t fair, regardless of circumstances.
“It’s a loss of revenue to the system that hurts all ratepayers across the board,” he said. “And it hurts the water system to account for how much water they’re pumping versus how much they’re selling.”
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com