The ongoing dispute between the city of Tupelo and the North Lee County Water Association, if nothing else, proves government and its often-cursed regulations do work – at least in this instance.
The city of Tupelo is trying – unsuccessfully thus far – to block efforts of the North Lee County Water Association to drill six new wells to pump water from the Eutaw-McShan aquifer.
The city, primarily through its attorney, Ben Logan, who is extremely versed on issues surrounding the water supply in Northeast Mississippi, argues that the rural water association should not be allowed to take precious water from the aquifer when there is plentiful surface water.
North Lee, primarily through its equally well-versed attorney, Bill Beasley, argues that North Lee can get water for its customers cheaper from the aquifer. And Beasley says water in the aquifer also is plentiful, and, thus there is no reason not to use it. The scientists and experts at the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality agree with Beasley and North Lee.
Kay Whittington, director of MDEQ’s Office of Land and Water Resources and a board certified environmental engineer, said “there is sufficient water” to issue North Lee’s six permits to drill new wells without there being a negative impact on the aquifer.
But all agree that would not be true if not for the actions of the Department of Environmental Quality in the 1980s and the actions of local government leaders and others in Northeast Mississippi.
In the 1980s, DEQ, a regulatory agency, essentially halted or at least put a severe clamp on new construction in Tupelo because the water level in the aquifer under the city was becoming dangerously low. Additional city growth would further negatively impact the aquifer, DEQ said at the time.
If not for the governmental monitoring of the water table, a disaster could have occurred in Tupelo when its residents found out one day it did not have a sufficient water supply and there was not enough time to do anything about it before it took a real toll on the quality of life in the area.
But because of the actions of a regulatory agency, city leaders and others, there was time to act before the quality of life for the people in Northeast Mississippi was affected.
And the action taken was to go to the Mississippi Legislature to obtain permission to issue a one-quarter cent sales tax in Tupelo to pay to pump water from the Tombigbee River in Fulton to Tupelo to replace water from the aquifer.
Legislative action granting a local government the option to impose a sale tax has been rare. It is questionable whether the current Northeast Mississippi legislative delegation would support such an endeavor.
But Logan rightly pointed out that the effort resulted in Tupelo being able to continue to grow and he questioned whether Toyota and other plants would have located in the area without the surface water source that they also use.
And the effort also has resulted in the aquifer being replenished. With Tupelo not relying on the aquifer, DEQ is no longer worried about its long-term sustainability.
DEQ officials say the aquifer has been replenished just as it predicted it would be with Tupelo, by far the larger water user in the region, no longer using it.
But Logan and the city of Tupelo warn the fast growth in north Lee County could put the same pressures on the aquifer that Tupelo did during its growth spurt in the 1970s and ’80s.
Perhaps that is true. Maybe it is not and Tupelo is only trying to “leverage” North Lee to give up to Tupelo a portion of its service area that the city annexed in 2012, as Beasley claims.
But what is not debatable is that the water system is much better in Tupelo thanks to the efforts of government on multiple levels.
BOBBY HARRISON is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at (601) 946-9931 or firstname.lastname@example.org.