Kelsey, Harris File Legislation to Regulate Future Water Policy in West Tennessee (UPDATED)

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UPDATE: (Bill would not directly affect already approved applications like proposed new TVA wells, though ongoing lawsuit from Sierra Club and Protect Our Aquifer might.)

Though currently approved projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority's plan for operating five wells to draw water from the Memphis Sand Aquifer won't be affected, a piece of legislation filed by two Shelby County legislators could substantially affect future water policy locally.

Senators Lee Harris (l), Brian Kelsey - JB
  • JB
  • Senators Lee Harris (l), Brian Kelsey

State Senators Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Lee Harris (D-Memphis) have filed a bill that would establish a Memphis Sand Aquifer Regional Development board with approval powers over any pumping of more than 10,000 gallons of water from the aquifer, source of the Memphis area's drinking water.

A TVA plan to drill into the aquifer via five new wells has been sanctioned by the Shelby County Water Quality Control Board but is still opposed by a group of environmentally minded citizens, who are concerned about possible leak-through contamination of the aquifer, among other issues.

The expressed purpose of the TVA drilling is to obtain some 3.5 million gallons of water daily from the aquifer to serve as coolant for the Authority's forthcoming natural-gas power plant. Though the bill presented by Kelsey and Harris will not offset the Shelby County Water Control Board's previous approval of that project, it was directly inspired by environmental concerns and would impose stringent new conditions for any future such proposals.

And a current lawsuit filed in Chancery Court by The Sierra Club and the Protect Our Aquifer nonprofit group challenges the Water Quality Board's action and offers a possible means of reversing TVA's license to pursue with its aquifer-drilling project.

As Ward Archer, founder of Protect Our Aquifer, explains in a memo to the Flyer:

"On February 1, 2017, Protect Our Aquifer, along with the Sierra Club, filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in Shelby County Chancery Court seeking judicial review of the Shelby County Groundwater Quality Control Board's decision upholding the issuance of well permits to TVA to draw potable water directly from our Memphis Sand Aquifer.

"The case was assigned to Chancellor Jim Kyle. On February 9, 2017, Chancellor Kyle signed an order instructing the clerk of the court to issue the writ requiring the board to submit the record from the administrative proceeding to the court within thirty days.

"This is the first step in the appeal process."
The petition from Sierra Club and Protect Our Aquifer can be accessed here:
Sierra_Club___POA_Petition_for_Certiorari_2.pdf
And here is the news release announcing the Kelsey/Harris bill:

(NASHVILLE), February 14, 2017 — State Senators Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Lee Harris (D-Memphis) have filed legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly setting up a Memphis Sands Aquifer Regional Development Board to protect water supplies in West Tennessee. Senate Bill 776 also requires board approval to pump more than 10,000 gallons of water from the aquifer to ensure its long-term viability.

It is sponsored by Rep. Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett) and Rep. Curtis Halford (R-Dyer) in the House of Representatives.

“Clean drinking water is very important to our citizens and our future,” said Sen. Kelsey. “This legislation aims to ensure the aquifer remains a clean and reliable source for future generations.”

The action follows approval given to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to pump approximately 3.5 million gallons of aquifer water each day to cool its new power-generating plant in Southwest Memphis, a move which is deemed controversial by some scientists and environmentalists.

Under the bill, the board would have all of the powers, rights, and privileges necessary to manage, conserve, preserve, and protect the aquifer, and to increase the recharge of, and prevent the waste or pollution in, the aquifer. The nine-member board would be fairly comprised of the mayors of Shelby and two other West Tennessee counties overlying the aquifer. The governor would appoint the remaining members with two from the agricultural community, two from commerce, and two from the environmental/research community.

“This board would also help ensure that the flow of rain and water into the aquifer prevents pollution and waste,” Kelsey added. “I believe this legislation provides a well-balanced approach to ensure the aquifer is protected for many years to come.”

In addition, Senate Bill 886, sponsored by Harris and Kelsey, requires anyone planning to drill a well to give at least 14 days advance notice to the state commissioner of the Department of Environment and Conservation with the notice published on department’s website. Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis), Rep. Lollar and Rep. Halford are sponsoring the bill in the House of Representatives.

Senator Harris said, “Everyone should know that our aquifer makes West Tennessee a very special place, as compared with other areas of the country. We need to work to preserve that asset. We know that there’s enough drinking water for today’s generation, but that’s not the worry. We want to make sure that the aquifer is preserved for future generations. That means we need to be careful with respect to the precedents we set today, since those precedents have a funny way to leading to negative consequences later. Because this aquifer is so special, we also want to do what we can to make sure that the public knows what’s happening with it and how it’s being utilized. When there are proposals to use that resource, we need to have a serious conversation with the public, and sometimes we need to be able to modify or even reject some of these uses.”

The water stored in the Memphis sand aquifer, which is also known as the Middle Claiborne, first fell as rain 332 BC. It covers 7,500 miles in portions of seven states, including 20 West Tennessee counties. Although aquifers are used for drinking water by more than 100 million Americans, Kelsey said the quality of the Memphis aquifer is unsurpassed.
The bill itself (SB0776/HB0816) may be seen here:

SB0776_1_.pdf

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