Tennessee Valley Authority
TVA workers install water quality monitoring wells near the Allen Fossil Plant.
A new Tennessee bill
could ”un-protect our aquifer,” removing Shelby County’s ability to control wells drilled into the Memphis Sand Aquifer, the source of the area’s famously pristine drinking water.
The bill was filed last week by two West Tennessee Republicans, Sen. Delores Gresham
(R-Somerville) and Rep. Curtis Halford
(R-Dyer). The bill would prohibit cities and counties from exercising authority over a landowner’s water rights on “certain drilling requirements.”
See related PDF
A detailed explanation of the bill was not available on the Tennessee General Assembly website Monday. The legislature was not in session Monday, thanks to the Presidents Day holiday, and lawmakers could not be immediately reached. Also, request for comment on the bill was not immediately returned by Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus.
Scott Banbury, Conservation Programs Coordinator for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, said he had not spoken to the bill’s sponsors as of Monday afternoon. But the bill is “about whether or not Shelby County has the authority to regulate groundwater wells within its jurisdiction.”
Scott Banbury of Sierra Club Tennessee
“If this were in effect when we fought the (Tennessee Valley Authority), the (Shelby County Health Department) would not have been able to take their groundwater wells away from them,” Banbury said.
The TVA had drilled five wells into the aquifer near its now moth-balled Allen Fossil plant and intended to pump about 3.5 million gallons of water from them each day to cool its new gas-fueled power plant. Those wells were close to contaminated areas of the TVA site. TVA agreed to not use the wells in December 2018. By February 2019, the health department placed explicit rules on TVA using the wells in the future.
If the new bill was made law, Banbury said landowners would have to apply to the state for a permit. Shelby county would likely administer the program but local authorities would not be able to deny permission for any well being drilled here as long as it met state code. He said the proposed law would “remove Shelby County’s ability to do the right thing” in regard to protecting its water.
Ward Archer, president of Protect Our Aquifer, said the bill would “un-protect our aquifer” and “set us way back about 50 years” before local well controls were established here.
(l) Ward Archer of Protect Our Aquifer displays some of the sand particles which, at several deep layers (this sample from 400 feet down) filter the near-pristine drinking water enjoyed by Memphis and Shelby County; (r) Jenna Stonecypher and Linda Archer sell a T-shirt to the Sierra Club's Dennis Lynch. The shirt, bearing the non-profit group's logo, says, "Save Water/Drink Beer."
“We need (local regulation) because we are the largest city in the country getting all its water from the ground,” Archer said. “It’s not that way in Nashville. It’s not that way in Knoxville. It’s just not the way they get their water; theirs is mostly surface water.
“What we’re trying to do is not just conserve our water but to protect it from getting contaminated. So, that’s why you have to have a well program.
“We’ve got to manage that process tightly to make sure that if someone drills a well 800 feet down into the aquifer — and doesn’t do it properly — it can become a conduit for contaminants.”
The Senate bill was passed on to the Energy, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Committee but is not on the calendar for this week’s meeting. The House is not on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee.