Mississippi VS Tennessee:
The Groundwater Debate
In the 1800’s Memphis, Tennessee was a dreadful place to live due to the cities lack of clean water. That all changed in 1887 when an ice company drilled a well deep into the ground right in the heart of downtown. Perfectly clear, drinkable water came out of that well which is known as the Memphis Sand Aquifer, and the town couldn’t have been happier. During that time, there were no regulations for groundwater usage, mostly because there was no way to measure it. Even now, groundwater remains somewhat mysterious. However, we do know that there is about 20-100 times more groundwater than there is fresh surface water. Plus, it’s usually a lot cheaper, cleaner, and easier to access. For these reasons, groundwater continues to gain popularity, especially among farmers.
The Mississippi Delta
Despite having the Mississippi River so close by, Memphis doesn’t count on the river for any drinking water. Instead, the city’s main water source comes straight from the Memphis Sand Aquifer. The problem? This particular aquifer sits beneath more than one state. As a matter of fact, the 850’ belt sprawls under parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Herein lies the problem, who has rights to the groundwater? To make matters worse, groundwater withdrawals have increased significantly since the 1970s. To give you an idea, the amount of gallons of water withdrawn daily from the aquifer has doubled since 1950.
This is a huge problem in the eyes of Mississippi’s Delta Sustainable Water Resources Task Force, which was launched in 2014. After irrigation season is over, there is some recovery to the aquifers of the Mississippi Delta. However, the amount has been in decline for years. In fact, it’s been estimated that each year it declines by about 1 to 1.5 feet. This is not just a concern for states next to the Mississippi Delta, there have been declines in groundwater stores all over the world. Because Memphis withdraws so much water from the aquifer, Mississippi is laying claim to said groundwater. When water is removed from the aquifer, it’s important to understand that it’s not displaced vertically. Much like a bathtub, the water gets displaced horizontally AKA from parts of Mississippi.
The state of Mississippi even went as far as taking the city of Memphis to court, seeking a whopping $1.2 billion. No state has ever been able to claim ownership of groundwater before, making this a truly groundbreaking case. The state’s lawyers said that about 20 percent of the city’s water supply was being taken by the city of Memphis. Apparently, they believe that between 1965 and 2006 Memphis took around 363 billion gallons of groundwater. This case has gone through many different courts, with Memphis saying it should just be dismissed.
Finally, in 2009, an appeals court stated that Mississippi couldn’t sue Memphis and had to include the entire state of Tennessee. The reason being, that only states have the right to negotiate over water. Plus, cases between states much be tried by the Supreme Court. Needless to say, many people are waiting with bated breath. The results of this case will determine the course of water law for years to come.