Tupelo still to fight North Lee project

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town_tupelo_greenBy Robbie Ward

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo officials may face high odds next month trying to convince the state’s environmental permitting board to reverse a decision to grant permits for the North Lee County Water Association to drill six new wells.

However, the city remains optimistic it will prevail in a local water power struggle.

The Mississippi Environmental Quality Permit Board approved in March the North Lee request to drill six new water wells as part of an $8.9 million project funded through a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.

While approved, North Lee’s permits have conditions – only 660,000 gallons of water can be withdrawn daily, a third party must check levels of the Eutaw-McShan aquifer and water withdrawal may be limited or stopped if water levels drop to thresholds set by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

North Lee sees the project as an effort to relieve capacity concerns for existing water wells.

Tupelo objected to the request at the public hearing and will provide additional evidence intended to sway the nine-member permit board, comprised of appointed officials. A key reason for the city fighting the project is that Tupelo wants to provide water to about 500 current North Lee customers annexed in 2012.

North Lee and Tupelo will meet in Jackson for a rematch on Aug. 12. The city requested a Permit Board evidentiary hearing, more formal than a public hearing, to include testimony, questioning and cross-examining of witnesses.

Tupelo City Attorney Ben Logan and Tupelo Water & Light General Manager Johnny Timmons met at City Hall Monday to discuss the next hearing.

“There will be more information presented,” Logan said. “Before it was just a public hearing.”

Officials with the MDEQ continue to recommend the project, identifying no significant environmental harm, creating a major obstacle for Tupelo. The city contends North Lee’s six permits will jeopardize the aquifer state regulators required the city to abandon decades ago.

Tupelo, other parts of Lee County and surrounding areas use surface water from the Northeast Mississippi Regional Water Supply District, which treats water from the Tombigbee River.

However, Tupelo has permission to use 23 existing city wells during emergencies.

Since much of Northeast Mississippi switched to surface water, the Eutaw-McShan aquifer has increased water levels.

Kay Whittington, director of MDEQ’s Office of Land and Water Resources and a board certified environmental engineer, continues to support North Lee’s permit request in spite of Tupelo’s opposition.

“Based on MDEQ’s analysis of current water level data and well spacing guidelines, there is sufficient water to issue six permits without adversely impacting the aquifer or the existing permitted users, including the city of Tupelo,” Whittington stated in a July 1 affidavit.

The water association plans to drills half the wells immediately, leaving three others for later, a factor that makes North Lee’s retention of the permits even more likely.

Issues related to the rural water association’s ability to secure interim financing for the long-term project seem resolved after North Lee’s attorney, Bill Beasley, announced Thursday approval for the immediate $6.8 million project.

Whatever happens at the hearing next month, Tupelo will keep fighting the project.

“If we don’t come to an agreement or prevail at DEQ, we’ll appeal to chancery court,” Logan said.

robbie.ward@journalinc.com