University of Memphis begins five-year aquifer research project

By Updated: April 09, 2019 3:53 PM CT | Published: April 08, 2019 11:05 PM CT

A Lowe’s store is about to sell 300 plastic buckets to the University of Memphis that are part of a much broader effort by the university to map breaches in the aquifers that hold Memphis' groundwater.

The $7 buckets are part of the public start of a 5-year effort by the university’s Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research – or CAESER – to get a first indication of how the Wolf River flows and interacts with the aquifers below it and near it. More sophisticated equipment will follow.

The basic seepage meters will be used along with 300 stalks of bamboo, each 6 to 7 feet in height, with red flags attached as part of the effort.

CAESER, along with the Wolf River Conservancy, are seeking volunteers to make up six teams that will place the buckets at different points in the river this June.

CAESER and city officials kicked off the research effort Monday at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library with a public meeting that drew 200 people.

Brian Waldron, director of CAESER, said the goal of the effort is to better map breaches in the clay layers that separate surface groundwater from the Memphis Sand aquifer, the source of the city’s water supply. The team of researchers will also look at how the aquifer interacts with the Mississippi River, as well as the quantity of water in the aquifers and how they are affected by recharge areas where rain water makes it way into the aquifer.

Waldron said the investigation could also consider whether the best source of the best water below Memphis may be the deeper Fort Pillow aquifer and a better strategy for the placement of new wells and maintenance of existing wells.

The work is being funded with $1 million in annual revenue from a 1 percent hike in Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division water rates in 2018.

“We have $1 million a year to study water in Memphis, Tennessee,” said city chief operating officer Doug McGowen, who credited public support of the rate hike. “We are in a very different place than we were just a year ago or two years ago. … Nobody has access to water like we have.”

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International Paper matched the water rate increase revenue with another $500,000 in a three-year grant announced Monday evening that will go to a different part of the research.

The research starts with five projects this year and another 11 next year.

“We’re bringing in about 25 scientists from all around the world. They are graduate students … and also faculty experts – not only at the University of Memphis but elsewhere,” Waldron said, introducing some of the graduate students already at the university and working on different goals.

“First we go after low-hanging fruit,” he said. “Where do we know a lot of information but we are missing just a little bit?”

One of those areas is southwest Memphis, where the Tennessee Valley Authority’s drilling of water wells on the site of its new $1 billion natural gas-fired power plant proved to be the controversy that led to the larger move for more aquifer research and the revenue stream to fund it.

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Opposition to the wells by the Sierra Club and the “Protect Our Aquifer” environmental group came as TVA found high arsenic levels in separate monitoring wells and reported that to the state. That led to a study of surface groundwater that found arsenic contamination at high levels at the coal ash ponds on the site of TVA’s coal-fired power plant near the new plant.

TVA decided to not use the wells at its plant and instead buy the water from MLGW. The cleanup of the coal ash by TVA at the old plant is an ongoing controversy.

“We know that there are breaches in this location,” Waldran said. “But we also know that the Mississippi River moves back and forth across this area and we suspect that there are more breaches due to that.”

An MLGW water well field in Hickory Hill is getting a set of sensors now for research to start in 2020 with more graduate students.

The research there is to determine “where in that shallow aquifer the water is gone,” Waldron said.

“It went dry. That water leaked through the breaches in that area into the Memphis aquifer,” he said. “They are now dry. And now when the wells turn on, the water in the Memphis aquifer starts to desaturate – starts to go away.”

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And close to the university, the site of the Custom Cleaners dry cleaning business will be studied. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has declared it a Superfund cleanup site because of high levels of tetrachloroethylene, a chemical used in dry cleaning, and specifically because of the possible impact the contamination could have on the aquifers.

The dry cleaning business, which operated at 3517 Southern Ave. from 1945 to the mid-1990s, is less than a mile from an MLGW water well field.

The summer research on the Wolf River is what Waldron described as “using the Wolf as a proxy to find new breaches.”

Other methods will include ground penetrating radar and double-cased wells to get an indication of the flow into the aquifer.


Memphis Sands Aquifer CAESER University Of Memphis Brian Waldron Doug Mcgowen
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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