'It's like déjà vu all over again.' That's what the renowned English scholar Yogi Berra might say had he read the following story in the 6 October 2014 edition of the Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger:
Is Memphis Stealing Water from Mississippi?
Mississippi officials are renewing allegations that Memphis is stealing water from the state.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused in 2010 to consider a similar claim.
The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal reports that Mississippi is seeking at least $615 million in damages. That's less than half the previous claim of $1.3 billion.
Mississippi alleges that Memphis' wells have created "cones of depression" in the water table that suck water from Mississippi into Tennessee. It estimates that Memphis has "forcibly" taken 252 billion gallons of water since 1985.
Memphis, its city-owned utility system and the state of Tennessee filed responses last month. They say Mississippi's claims contradict science and legal precedent. They also say the aquifer is an interstate resource to which no state can claim ownership without formal apportionment.
The aforementioned story was taken from the one written by Tom Charlier, the Commercial-Appeal reporter who's been covering this story from the beginning. It was he who called me a number of years ago and told me of this story. He wanted some professional input since many of the local hydrogeologists were reluctant to comment. My interest was whetted. Why? It was a:
1) Transboundary groundwater dispute between two US states;
2) Water quantity fight, something more akin to the Western US (apologies to the ACF Basin);
3) Dispute involving groundwater occurring in an area with plenty of surface water (c. 50 inches of annual precipitation, bordering one of the largest rivers in the world);
4) Situation I expect to see more of in the future (fighting over groundwater); and
5) Remarkable opportunity to be proactive by devising a compact (first groundwater-only compact in the US!) and establishing an interstate regional commission to govern, manage, and protect an exceptional groundwater resource.
In fairness, the three riparians (Arkansas is the third party) were in talks to allocate water in the Memphis Sand aquifer, but then Mississippi withdrew and decided to sue. Disputes between US states involving groundwater have occurred but have revolved around groundwater - surface water interactions, such as 'stealing' streamflow.
I've posted about this story a number of times, the last one being 6 November 2013. Here are a few other recent posts: 26 April 2012 and 17 April 2012 and a post from 26 January 2010 that contains the Supreme Court action and links to previous posts.
By the way, my water lawyer friends tell me that the lack of a Supreme Court decision was disappointing, as many (in the USA and elsewhere) were awaiting a landmark ruling on groundwater.
In a nutshell: the water from the Memphis Sand aquifer (the water surce in question) had never been allocated among the states of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas so how could Mississippi claim that its groundwater had been stolen by Memphis? And how did they come up with the value of the water lost?
In an intereesting development, University of Memphis faculty members Brian Waldron and Daniel Larsen, claimed that the situation could be reversed - that pumping in Mississippi could have reduced the flow of groundwater into Tennessee. Here is Tom Charlier's story about their work.
I met Brian last November at the AWRA Annual meeting in Portland and he told me that their paper was to be published soon in JAWRA. Well, it's here!
'Pre-Development Groundwater Conditions Surrounding Memphis, Tennessee: Controversy and Unexpected Outcomes', by Brian Waldron and Daniel Larsen, Journal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA) 1-21. DOI: 10.1111/jawr.12240 (2014)
Reliance on groundwater resources by differing governing bodies can create transboundary disputes raising questions of ownership and apportionment as the resource becomes strained through overuse or threatened by contamination. Transboundary disputes exist at varying scales, from conflicts between countries to smaller disputes between intrastate jurisdictions. In 2005 within the United States, the State of Mississippi filed a lawsuit against its political neighbor and their utility, the City of Memphis and Memphis Light, Gas, and Water, for groundwater deemed owned by the State of Mississippi to be wrongfully diverted across the state line and into Tennessee by the defendants. The basis of the lawsuit was potentiometric maps of groundwater levels for the Memphis aquifer that showed under suggested pre-development conditions no flow occurring across the Mississippi-Tennessee state line, but subsequent historic potentiometric maps show a cone of depression under the City of Memphis with a clear northwesterly gradient from Mississippi into Tennessee. The suggested pre-development conditions were derived from limited groundwater level observations between 41 and 74 years post-development. A new pre-development map is constructed using historic records that range 0-17 years post-development that shows the natural flow is northwesterly from Mississippi into Tennessee and transboundary groundwater quantities have actually decreased since pre-development conditions.
Below are maps that Waldron provided me a few years ago. The first one shows pre-development conditions and the second shows 2007 (development) conditions. Flow to the northwest from Misssissippi into the Memphis area and Tennessee occurred prior to development.
The flow into the Memphis area and Tennessee appears to have been reduced by the development.
Waldron and Larsen concluded that the flow in the Memphis area had been reduced by about 40,000 cubic meters per day or 12,000 acre-feet per year. See the paper for more information.
Maybe we will get that desired Supreme Court decision, and/or see something along the lines of (5) above.
Perhaps it's time to call Tom Charlier.
"It's like déjà vu all over again." - attributed to Yogi Berra