OUR OPINION: Tupelo, North Lee need to find water resolution

Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality permit board on Tuesday granted the North Lee County Water Association permission to head down an uncertain and expensive path with a go-ahead to drill six new wells in its service area.

The decision reasonably will be challenged by the city of Tupelo, first in a rehearing with DEQ and possibly in court in an effort to protect its own commitment and investment in providing water and fire protection to about 450 current North Lee customers who were annexed into the city.

Tupelo’s annexation commitment includes building water lines large enough to sustain Tupelo’s firefighting equipment. The existing North Lee water lines aren’t large enough.

DEQ’s permission to move ahead on the six wells carries the stipulation that the aquifers from which water is drawn be monitored to ensure that depletion does not exceed safe levels, a reasonable requirement, one that may need additional review in light of the history of water issues in Lee County.

Those new Tupelo residents will pay city taxes, and all Lee Countians and others who shop in Tupelo will continue paying an extra sales tax to pay for an aqueduct and distribution system built when Tupelo’s use threatened the aquifer’s integrity and the city had to build an aqueduct.

The Northeast Mississippi Regional Water Supply District resulted, fed by surface water from the Tombigbee River in Itawamba County, now supplying Tupelo, major industrial parks and some other communities by agreement.

Negotiations on a financial package to sell the North Lee customers to Tupelo started on a cautiously optimistic note but have stalled. We hope they can move forward.

It should be remembered that the North Lee association has been embroiled in internal upheaval, stemming in part from frequent customer complaints about water quality, followed by allegations of mismanagement. The board eventually was reconstituted.

A petition by customers now living in Tupelo could result in being removed from North Lee’s control, an option we hope the city explores.

Lost for now is any vision of intra-county cooperation, which is essential in the long term for Lee County’s overall progress and prosperity.