JACKSON – A state permitting board on Monday discounted protests from the city of Tupelo that the North Lee County Water Association’s plan to dig six new wells would have a negative impact on the Eutaw-McShan aquifer.
After hearing arguments for about 90 minutes Tuesday, the nine-member Mississippi Environmental Quality Permit Board approved without a dissenting vote the recommendations of its staff to allow the water association to proceed with the six new wells.
The permits were approved with the condition that DEQ would monitor the amount of water consumed in the 125-square-mile water association that covers a sizable portion of northern Lee County, including parts of Tupelo, and would monitor the levels of the aquifer.
And if water levels in the aquifer were to become a problem, the permit board would reserve the right to take additional action.
Ben Logan, attorney for the city of Tupelo who argued against granting the permits, said the city would appeal the ruling – first before the same body and to chancery court if needed.
Tupelo attorney Bill Beasley, who represents North Lee, argued that the aquifer, which hit dangerously low levels in the 1980s before Tupelo and many other entities in the area converted to surface water from the Tombigbee River, now has plenty of capacity. It has been replenished more than 100 feet since Tupelo’s conversion to surface water.
Beasley said the new wells are needed to better serve North Lee’s approximately 4,400 customers. Rhett Brooks, engineer for the association, told the permitting board many of the wells are not meeting Department of Health guidelines, not because of the impact on the aquifer but because of their pumping capacity.
Beasley said the goal of association officials “is to improve the quality of service for their customers.”
At the heart of the dispute is the fact that much of the area Tupelo recently annexed is in the North Lee County Water Association service area. The annexed area includes about 450 of the association’s 4,400 customers and includes areas like the Auburn community, Deer Park, Big Oaks subdivision and north and west of The Mall at Barnes Crossing, including what is known as the planned Northern Loop road west of the mall. The Northern Loop area, like much of the annexed area, is expected to see significant development, putting additional strain on the aquifer.
The city is in negotiations with North Lee to acquire that annexed area for water service to residents.
Logan argued to the permit board that it would make more sense to extend the surface water system. He said Tupelo already is required to run sewer and water lines to the annexed area for fire protection.
“It is a tremendous waste of citizens’ resources” to be building new wells at the same time Tupelo is adding the infrastructure, Logan said. North Lee’s Brooks said converting to surface water would cost roughly $16 million compared to the nearly $9 million cost of digging the new wells. North Lee is receiving federal loans to help with the construction of the wells.
In the early 1990s, with the aid of a one-quarter-cent sales tax for Tupelo imposed by the Legislature, the Northeast Mississippi Water Supply District was formed to convert Tupelo to surface water from the Tombigbee River. The Lee County industrial parks and several other entities, such as various Itawamba County water districts, also have converted from the aquifer to the surface water system. At the time, the “dewatering” of the aquifer in the Tupelo area was threatening growth and construction in the city.
Beasley said since Tupelo converted, the aquifer level has risen by 100 feet despite several other water districts continuing to use it.
Logan said Tupelo maintains emergency wells within the city that could be used if problems occurred in the surface water system. Those emergency wells would have to supply several entities, including Toyota at Blue Springs.
For that reason, he said it is not wise for North Lee to dig new wells in an area that is expected to experience significant growth. Only one of North Lee’s planned wells is in the annexation area. Three of the planned wells are northeast of Tupelo while two are on the western side of the county.
The DEQ staff told the permit board that before Tupelo converted it was drawing about 11 million gallons per day from the aquifer while North Lee draws less than 2 million.