By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Tupelo officials’ optimism about convincing the North Lee County Water Association to exchange current and future customers in newly annexed areas for cash has turned to concern.
After three months of emails, meetings and phone calls concerning less than 500 current rural water customers, talks between Tupelo and North Lee have gotten to the point where the city is considering its legal options if a deal isn’t reached.
Complicating negotiations, North Lee continues to advance plans to accept an $8.9 million loan from the federal government to drill six new wells and six water tanks, an action Tupelo adamantly opposes.
Federal law protects the rural water associations with active USDA Rural Development loans from municipalities and other governments undertaking eminent domain efforts to acquire customers and areas of coverage. At this point, North Lee has received approval for the federal loan but no financial transaction has occurred.
Tupelo’s next opportunity to stymie the water association’s efforts toward finalizing the low-interest loan is Tuesday. Both sides will appear before the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality’s Permit Board in Jackson to argue for and against North Lee’s planned wells.
The city protests the plan since MDEQ has opposed for more than a quarter century any Tupelo plan for new wells because the region’s underground water had been depleted at alarming rates.
Needing water for existing and future growth, Tupelo and other regional communities have accessed groundwater funneled from the Tombigbee River.
Tupelo city attorney Ben Logan said North Lee is misguided by persisting in drilling the wells so close to the city limits.
“It’s not the way a rural water association should take care of their customers and certainly not in the best interests of taxpayers,” he said last week. “The purpose of a rural water association is to provide water to people who can’t get it.”
North Lee board members believe new water wells will not threaten the region’s underground water supply since Tupelo and other communities no longer drain high volumes of underground water. Tupelo, however, believes future development in the rural water association’s territory could lead to withdrawing too much water from the aquifer.
North Lee board president Terry Anderson called the city’s concerns “meritless” in a Nov. 12 letter to MDEQ responding to the city’s formal protest to plans to pump more water from the local aquifer.
“Tupelo’s objection to the well permit applications of North Lee is a meritless tactic to try to leverage North Lee into surrendering service areas recently annexed by Tupelo that are certified by the Public Service Commission to North Lee,” Anderson wrote.
Logan will explain the city’s objections Tuesday to the nine-member permitting board, which is expected to decide the issue on the same day. Beyond potential for significantly depleting the aquifer, Logan said North Lee’s plan will result in Tupelo installing millions of dollars in water lines for fire protection in annexed areas but not having access to water customers, who currently pay higher rates with the rural water association.
The permit board will listen to different sides but has already received a recommendation from a state authority. Kay Whittington, state director of the federal Office of Land and Water Resources, on Jan. 23 recommended conditional approval for North Lee to proceed. Her recommendation, however, includes quarterly monitoring of the aquifer to determine any adverse impact with authority to withdraw permits to pump water from underground or decrease amounts of water withdrawn if tests show the aquifer’s water levels shrinking too much.
Roughly 10 percent of North Lee County Water Association’s 4,400 customers are in the newly expanded Tupelo city limits, but the area could explode with commercial growth and development. The same area generates 20 percent of the water association’s overall revenue.
North Lee’s board of directors sees anticipated commercial growth in Tupelo’s newly extended northern boundaries and anticipates lots of new customers. The territory includes areas along the Northern Loop, a Tupelo taxpayer-funded project connecting Coley and Barnes Crossing roads.
Logan warns the initial green light for the project can lead to harmful consequences if wells serving future developments along Tupelo’s northern border require limiting how much water flows to nearby commercial and residential areas.
North Lee board members and board attorney Bill Beasley did not return numerous phone calls, emails and text messages last week seeking comment. Anderson said the board prohibited him from discussing negotiations publicly. Board member David Morgan was appointed as the water association’s spokesman related to negotiations but hasn’t returned Daily Journal phone calls and text messages.
“The board has identified David as the spokesman,” Anderson said. “It would be out of line for me to discuss it.”
Logan would not discuss negotiation specifics but did say Tupelo plans to use every legal option available to prevent North Lee from drilling new wells in the city limits. If the permit board approves North Lee’s request this week, Tupelo will request an evidentiary hearing related to the city’s objections.
“Then we can appeal to Chancery Court of Lee County,” he said.
Logan has said for months major conflict between the two groups negotiating the right to provide water service in annexed areas could lead to lengthy, expensive legal challenges.
“It would certainly be more cost-effective all the way around for reasonable men to reach a reasonable agreement,” he said.