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VOL. 7 | NO. 29 | Saturday, July 12, 2014

Memphis’ Water Remains Envy of Other Cities

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Brian Waldron is cautious even as he talks about the city’s advantages in its water supply and the abundance of that supply.

“We are in good shape and our future looks positive,” said the director of the University of Memphis Ground Water Institute.

Kameron Smith, 8, left, and Eddie Burress, 9, play in the fountains at Civic Center Plaza Downtown.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Waldron acknowledges that the city has natural advantages in its water supply that are the envy of other cities and states.

As recently as last month, Mississippi’s attorney general told attorneys for Memphis that his state is still interested in continuing the long litigation in which Mississippi officials have tried to claim the city’s groundwater is partially theirs.

Waldron has ongoing concerns, such as sprinklers coming on as scheduled right after a day of rain that caused minor flooding last month, when changes in sprinkler and irrigation systems can remedy that.

“There are irrigation folks that do this. Maybe you just need to water every second or third day. How many sprinklers are on after getting seven inches of rain?” Waldron said. “The ground is saturated. … We take it for granted. Let’s reduce the amount of landscaping irrigation to be exactly what it needs to be.”

Meanwhile, the trend toward manmade lakes or ponds isn’t all bad. Some help with storm runoff. Others are for esthetics. Some are a mix of both, and others are necessary to get water back into the groundwater system.

“In the areas of recharge where rainwater replenishes our drinking water supply, such types of detention ponds provide that opportunity for water to infiltrate back into the groundwater, and those are appreciated,” Waldron added.

It’s not that the Memphis area is in danger of running out of water. In fact, Waldron says, the city’s groundwater supply is so abundant it can and should be touted as an asset in attracting industry. While states like California struggle with real and immediate water supply concerns after several years of drought, the Memphis water supply is much less at risk from drought.

“More of those systems rely on surface water or snow melt or reservoirs and are more greatly impacted by drought, where our system being so huge, is not as impacted by drought,” he said. “If the story was to be told, that really speaks to the economic vitality of our area for those industries that need water for production. They should consider coming here and use the water – and that brings jobs to the region.”

The institute’s concerns are not only quantity of water but the quality, which means monitoring development above ground for the impact it has on the water supply below the surface.

“Being aware of where certain types of development occur and what activities will be occurring in those developed areas will be critical for making sure that if it is of any harm that it is engineered such that that harm is minimized and monitored,” Waldron said.

The recharge area for the city’s water supply is on the eastern border of Shelby County for the most part. Most of the city’s groundwater moves from that area.

As it moves underground, the different tasks of maintaining quality and quantity come together in some respects.

“Quantity deals not just with usage, which is current demand but also anticipated future demand and how water is being replenished by nature,” Waldron explained. “The quality really pertains to man’s activity and how what we do is having an impact on the groundwater system with regard to the quality and what we can do to improve on our awareness of that impact to keep the quality of the water as great as it is.”

In a metropolitan area of a million people, Waldron said individual citizens’ daily practices can play a role, along with development policies and plans that address the impact of what is directly above the groundwater supply.

I think anybody can be conservation-minded, whether it’s summer or winter, when they brush their teeth and take long showers, leave water running doing dishes,” he said. “We can all take very small steps to make a big impact as a whole to reduce the amount of water we use. It’s not an infinite supply.”

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