Memphis Counts Its Blessings, Challenges by the Gallon

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November 20, 2015 — Resurrection Catholic School student Ivy Mason, 8, (center) asks questions of University of Memphis geology student Jeff Mitchell (right) as he demonstrates the makeup of different layers of soil found in Memphis inside Water on Wheels, an interactive mobile education exhibit run by the University of Memphis. Inside, students learn about the makeup of the Memphis aquifer, causes of consumption and pollution of natural water sources as well as tips for water conservation. (Photo Credit: Brandon Dill/Special to The Commercial Appeal)

November 20, 2015 — Resurrection Catholic School student Jessica Trejo, 8, pulls a lever on an installation that demonstrates the natural water cycle inside the University of Memphis Water on Wheels, an interactive mobile education exhibit. Inside, students learn about the makeup of the Memphis aquifer, causes of consumption and pollution of natural water sources as well as tips for water conservation. (Photo Credit: Brandon Dill/Special to The Commercial Appeal)

Article courtesy of David Waters | Dec 05, 2015 | The Commercial Appeal | Shared as educational material

I grew up alongside a great lake. Now I live above one. We all do.

It’s called the Memphis Sand aquifer.

Maybe if we called it a great lake, we’d appreciate it more.

If we were able to see it stretching out for hundreds of square miles around us, and rising hundreds of feet above us, we’d realize what a great blessing it is.

And what a great responsibility we have to protect and preserve it.

After last week’s contentious and shortsighted City Council discussion about our already selfishly low water rates, I really don’t think we’re getting it.

We are sitting atop the most valuable natural resource in the world.

Trillions of gallons of cool, clear water.

We drink it up.

Memphis is the largest city in the world that draws all of its drinking water from an aquifer, even though we live beside one of the world’s biggest rivers.

MLGW and Shelby County’s suburbs are pumping about 220 million gallons a day out of the Memphis Sand.

We use water from the Memphis Sand to make sweet tea and craft beer. We use it to cook and clean and flush.

We use it to water our lawns and crops, put out fires and manufacture everything from medical devices to air conditioners to toilet paper.

We let our faucets drip, our fountains and hoses run, our pipes leak without a second thought.

Our fresh water supply is cheap and plentiful. It’s also invaluable and plenty vulnerable.

Fortunately, Mayor A C Wharton’s Blue Stream Task Force, which might turn out to be his greatest legacy, is working on strategies to address the three biggest threats to the aquifer:

Contamination. The aquifer is protected by a thick layer of clay, but it’s not hermetically sealed. There are gaps and leaks in the clay. Surface water and more shallow groundwater seeps into the sand.

There are hundreds of potential contamination sites in Shelby County and neighboring Fayette County, some near hazardous waste sites.

“We have an abundance of water, but it’s not something that’s going to take care of itself,” Wharton said Wednesday at a meeting of the task force, which includes a wide array of local scientists, environmentalists, engineers, and business and government leaders.

“We have to be vigilant about how we use it and how we protect it. The quantity and the quality. It doesn’t just taste good. The purity of our water is rare and it also gives us an economic advantage.”

Consumption. We know how much we are pumping out of the aquifer, but we don’t know how much surface water and rainwater is seeping back in to replenish it.

Aquifers don’t last forever. Two recent studies using satellite data found that a third of the world’s largest aquifers are threatened. So far, ours is not.

“When it comes to the quantity of water we have, we’re in good shape,” said Ted Fox, task force coordinator and the county’s former director of public works.

“But we’ve got to be careful that we don’t start overpumping it. And that we don’t overdevelop the areas that are allowing it to be recharged naturally.”

Competition. Nearly all western states are fighting for their water rights. So are some eastern states.

In recent years, North and South Carolina have gone to court over two rivers. Alabama and Florida have battled Georgia over rights to the Chattahoochee River.

Georgia has even been trying to “reclaim” a sliver of Tennessee to pump a billion gallons of Tennessee River water a day to thirsty Atlanta.

Water wars here in the water-rich Mid-South are not unimaginable.

Mississippi is suing Memphis, claiming MLGW is sucking aquifer water across the state line. Associated legal fees are one of the reasons for last week’s water-rate hike. If Mississippi wins, water rates will go much higher. And we might have to start drawing some drinking water from Big Muddy.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, Arkansas says that a more shallow aquifer, being consumed by rice and bean farmers at a rate of billions of gallons a day, is “unsustainable.” Eastern counties in that state sit above the Memphis Sand.

“This is a regional resource, but we’re all looking at it as a local one,” said Larry Jensen, a Memphis commercial real estate broker and a task force member.

“Blue Stream is a great start. We need to get our house in order first. But we also need the governors of our three states to take the kind of leadership role Mayor Wharton has taken locally. They need to develop a multistate strategy to protect this amazing resource we all share.”

It’s called the Memphis Sand, but it’s not our water.

The aquifer has never been allocated legally among the states that sit above it.

It’s not our water, morally, either. It belongs to our children and their children and their children.

Their water supply is our responsibility.

Contact columnist David Waters at

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