By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The city of Tupelo’s continuing effort to block the construction of six new water wells by the North Lee County Water Association was rebuffed again Tuesday by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Permit Board after more than five hours of testimony.
But a settlement between the city and the association could be near.
The nine-member DEQ Permit Board had approved the rural water association’s request to build the six new wells in March, but the city had requested an evidentiary hearing before the panel to present witnesses and to cross-examine opposing witnesses.
The hearing did not change any minds as the board again approved North Lee’s application for the six new wells unanimously.
The next step for the proceeding would be for Tupelo to file an appeal in chancery court. But after the hearing, Tupelo city attorney Ben Logan said North Lee had made an offer to settle the issue that might make any appeal unnecessary.
Attorney Bill Beasley, representing North Lee, also referenced the possibility of “a pending settlement” during the hearing.
North Lee, a 125-square-mile water association that covers a sizable portion of north Lee County, draws water from the Eutaw-McShan aquifer. In the early 1990s, the city of Tupelo was forced to convert its water usage from the aquifer to surface water piped in from the Tombigee River at Fulton because officials with the Department of Environmental Quality determined that the water levels in the aquifer were becoming dangerously low.
DEQ staff, which recommended to the Permit Board that the North Lee applications be approved, says that with Tupelo no longer relying on ground water the aquifer has replenished itself.
Kay Whittington, director of DEQ’s Office of Land and Water Resources, said the permits would not have been approved “if DEQ had considered there was the possibility of a negative impact on the aquifer.”
But Logan and the city maintain that DEQ did not consider all the evidence. He argued that north Lee County, particularly the cities of Baldwyn, Saltillo and Guntown, is growing much faster than the rest of the county and continued use of the aquifer in those areas “will produce the same threat to the aquifer that Tupelo did 20 to 30 years ago.”
Another issue in the dispute is that Tupelo has annexed some of the North Lee area where it wants to build the wells. The city maintains that it must run lines for fire protection and it also could provide surface water to the area at the same time.
Logan said it is “a common sense” solution to prevent the duplication of services and to hold down costs. North Lee is borrowing more than $8 million in federal funds for the expansion.
But Beasley said it is the city that is forcing the duplication of services by choosing to annex about 10 percent of North Lee’s about 4,500 customers.
Brett Brooks, a Tupelo engineer working for North Lee, said the wells were needed to upgrade the system. He said he looked into converting to surface water, but it would be much more expensive than remaining on the aquifer.
Beasley said the city is trying to block the permitting of the new wells “as leverage” to force North Lee to give up about 450 of its customers in the annexed area. Beasley said those high-volume customers provide about 20 percent of North Lee’s revenue, meaning the association would have to raise rates to offset the loss revenue.
“We all know the key to lower rates is volume,” he said.
Beasley said during the hearing a settlement by the city could offset the loss of customers and revenue.
The annexed area 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 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 Permit Board did leave special conditions on the permits where DEQ will monitor the aquifer and could reduce North Lee’s usage of the aquifer or revoke the permits if needed. Whittington said for DEQ to enact such conditions on a permit “is very rare” and was done to alleviate concerns by the city of Tupelo.