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Ward Archer

Ward Archer is founder and president of Protect Our Aquifer. He serves on the advisory board of the Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research at the University of Memphis and served on former governor Bill Haslam's TN H20 initiative. He is a graduate of Rhodes College.

Protecting our aquifer: Who’s in charge?

By Published: April 23, 2019 4:27 PM CT
<strong>Protect Our Aquifer was organized in 2016 to support the Sierra Club&rsquo;s appeal of TVA&rsquo;s cooling water wells that tapped our drinking water aquifer. Today, it fights to keep Memphis' drinking water safe.</strong> (Submitted)

Protect Our Aquifer was organized in 2016 to support the Sierra Club’s appeal of TVA’s cooling water wells that tapped our drinking water aquifer. Today, it fights to keep Memphis' drinking water safe. (Submitted)

Protect Our Aquifer was organized in the fall of 2016 to do one thing: support the Sierra Club’s appeal of TVA’s cooling water wells that tapped our drinking water aquifer. We lost that appeal but won the argument.

<strong>Ward Archer</strong>

Ward Archer

Thanks to strong public support, good science and allies like the Southern Environmental Law Center, TVA abandoned plans to pump aquifer water from their own production wells. A pump test ordered by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) proved that these wells would have contaminated part of the Memphis Sand Aquifer. TVA has now pledged to dig up and remove the coal ash and carcinogens that have contaminated the groundwater at the old Allen plant site.

Given our original objective, one would think the job of Protect Our Aquifer (POA) is done. Complete. Over. And it would be over except for an alarming discovery we made along the way: No one is in charge of taking care of our pristine aquifer.

Current management of groundwater falls to the Shelby County Health Department and the Groundwater Quality Control Board. The health department handles all well permitting, inspections and fines. They also act as staff for the Board who – by their own admission – are no more than an appeals board without a budget. This is the same board that heard our original appeal of the TVA well permits in 2016 and voted 7-0 to approve them anyway.

After learning the Niagara water bottling plant was shipping more than 500,000 gallons of aquifer water per day from nearby Byhalia, Mississippi, we asked this board to prohibit such extraction in Shelby County. They said no.

We need a new water sheriff in town. Not only to protect our drinking water, but also to protect the integrity of the system that provides our pristine, pre-industrial, unpolluted and safe source of everyday water. We are one of the largest communities in the United States that depends solely on groundwater for our drinking water. It’s imperative that we become better stewards of this ground and these waters on which we so depend.

<strong>TVA has pledged to dig up and remove the coal ash and carcinogens that have contaminated the groundwater at the old Allen plant site.</strong> (Submitted)

TVA has pledged to dig up and remove the coal ash and carcinogens that have contaminated the groundwater at the old Allen plant site. (Submitted)

We here at POA have found this out firsthand, as caring for the aquifer has taken us down a long road with unexpected turns.

Earlier this month, the first public meeting was held to launch a $5 million, five-year aquifer research study. POA supports this research – funded by that extra 18 cents per month on your water bill (thank you). Groundwater experts at The University of Memphis Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research (CAESER) program will map gaps in the clay layer that protects the deep aquifer. Up to now, land use decisions have been guided by guesses. Again, in the case of the Allen site, TVA recently admitted just such a gap – adjacent to the coal ash pond. 

Recently developers applied to site a construction landfill adjacent to the Nutbush neighborhood in the wetlands and floodplain of the Wolf River. Residents who remember their neighborhood flooded in 2011 fought this use, and with the aid of POA, the Sierra Club and Wolf River Conservancy, stopped it – for now.

This landfill has the potential to contaminate the Wolf River, and surrounding ground and surface waters. And depending upon vertical and horizontal water flows that we do not yet understand, it could contaminate the aquifer. There are presently three more active applications to put landfills in the floodplain of the Wolf River. With contamination in mind, POA will oppose all of these as potential sources of harm to our water sources. 

One of the most dramatic current examples is the former Custom Cleaners site at 3517 Southern Ave. near Highland. Dry cleaning solvent (perchloroethylene) has leaked into the groundwater and appears to be moving toward our drinking water system. Last year the Environmental Protection Agency added this site to its National Priority List and is currently designing a remediation plan. But funding for the cleanup hasn’t been allocated yet. We would like to see the cleanup start tomorrow, especially since this contamination is only a half mile from East Memphis’ water wells at MLGW’s Sheahan Pumping Station.

Abandoned and contaminated sites dot the landscape of Shelby County. There is already a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation fish advisory on every river and stream in Shelby County. These fish are contaminated with the likes of chlordane, mercury and pesticides. Scientists, TVA, and MLGW all agree that the upper alluvial aquifer is already contaminated, which is why no one wants to use this water source. These are all system problems for a new, fully armed sheriff to monitor, correct and control.

It has been miraculous to watch Memphis stand up for its drinking water. But don’t take those POA signs down. We are not done, and the aquifer and all its appendages are far from protected. We need even more public support, as we work with elected officials to explore how to create a real “Groundwater Authority” empowered to secure, protect and preserve the precious drinking water in Shelby County.  

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at pburch@dailymemphian.com.

Topics

Protect Our Aquifer Sierra Club TVA MLGW

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