Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Lawmaker Pauses Bill to Strip Local Groundwater Control

Posted By on Wed, Mar 4, 2020 at 2:11 PM

click to enlarge TVA workers install water quality monitoring wells near the now-idled Allen Fossil Plant. - TENNESSEE VALLEY AUTHORITY
  • Tennessee Valley Authority
  • TVA workers install water quality monitoring wells near the now-idled Allen Fossil Plant.

A bill that would have threatened local protection for the Memphis Sand Aquifer has been delayed for this legislative session.

The bill was filed by two West Tennessee Republicans, Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Rep. Curtis Halford (R-Dyer). The bill would have prohibited cities and counties from exercising authority over a landowner’s water rights on “certain drilling requirements.”

Little information about the bill was divulged by the sponsors before its introduction Wednesday in the Senate Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee. When asked about specifics last month, Molly Gormley, the deputy press secretary of the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus only explained that the bill at the time was a caption bill and that “there is no intention for this legislation to move forward in its current form.”
click to enlarge U of M’s Scott Schoefernacker conducts a water quality test.
  • U of M’s Scott Schoefernacker conducts a water quality test.

“The purpose of a caption bill is to open a part of Tennessee Code Annotated with the intention of bringing an amendment to provide specific content or address specific needs later,” explained Gormley. “While this caption bill opened the caption on water rights, the intention of this bill has not yet been determined. If the bill moves forward, an amendment will be forthcoming to provide further clarity to the subject.”

Gresham did not bring any such amendment forward during her brief explanation of the bill Wednesday. She explained only that rights to water adjoining or under land precede Tennessee statehood. She said water is necessary for agriculture, for irrigation and livestock. 
click to enlarge Gresham
  • Gresham

She said Shelby County Health Department’s well construction codes seek to “exercise control over all groundwater in Shelby County.” She said such a move “may be the first documented situation in Tennessee history where riparian [basically, water ownership] rights are effectively removed.”

Gresham noted that Memphis Light, Gas & Water has said the Memphis Sand Aquifer contains more than 100 trillion gallons of water and that it sits under eight states. She said Shelby county sits next to the Mississippi River, the “15th largest river in the world.” Gresham said restricting landowners’ water rights here needed a public policy debate.

She introduced the bill this year “in the event legislation was needed to protect riparian rights.” But she said Shelby County leaders have heard her concerns and those of the Tennessee Farm Bureau and pulled the bill from consideration.

While the bill was not debated Wednesday, Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) published her opinion of the bill via the Medium website Wednesday morning.

click to enlarge A diagram shows the layer of aquifers underneath Memphis. - COREY OWENS/GREATER MEMPHIS CHAMBER
  • Corey Owens/Greater Memphis Chamber
  • A diagram shows the layer of aquifers underneath Memphis.

“I will oppose any legislative effort to strip away of the rights of Memphians to protect our aquifer from unwanted drilling,” Akbari said. “For generations, the Memphis Sand Aquifer 
click to enlarge Sen. Raumesh Akbari - TENNESSEE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
  • Tennessee General Assembly
  • Sen. Raumesh Akbari
 as provided the people of Shelby County clean and safe water at an affordable price."

"The aquifer is essential to the health and well being of nearly 1 million Tennesseans and protecting this natural resource, which cannot be replaced, must be a top priority.”

Local environmental advocates in Shelby County said the bill would effectively “un-protect our aquifer,” giving rights to any landowner who wanted to drill into the aquifer, the source of the Memphis’ famously pristine drinking water.

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