Compared to the arid, desert states of the U.S. and even other states in the water-rich Southeast, Mississippi has been blessed with good quantities and quality of groundwater generally throughout the state. But it is still a resource that must be carefully managed and monitored in order to assure industry that adequate supplies of groundwater will be available over the period of time needed for the industry to recoup its investment.
“Even with the abundant surface waters we have – and we receive about 55 inches of rainfall annually – we are a groundwater-dependent state for both public supplies and, to a large extent, industrial use,” said Charles Branch, head of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality`s Office of Land and Water Resources. “Problems can arise when we have industrial demands in quantities such that the available aquifer systems in a particular location cannot yield the large quantities of water needed for industrial process use. We have situations where groundwater quality is such the treatment cost of rendering it suitable for industrial process use precludes industries developing or proceeding to develop groundwater as their principal source of water.”
When a prospective industry eyes Mississippi, water supplies are often a critical factor.
An extensive groundwater monitoring program is necessary to provide assurance that supplies are available, and to determine if remedial actions are necessary should levels in an aquifer start to decline.
“Many people who are looking at Mississippi as a potential area for plant siting or economic expansion are really astounded by the in-depth amount of information we have regarding our groundwater resources,” Branch said.
Branch said that the state being able to guarantee in writing that water will be available for the 20-year period needed for an industry to recoup its investment has been indicated by industry as being one of the principal factors in the final decision to locate a plant in Mississippi.
“Groundwater monitoring is a long-term investment effort into the future economic development of state,” Branch said. “Problems aren`t created overnight and can`t be solved overnight. If we allow them to progress to the point where they become a crises, the options are very, very limited. In many other parts of the country, that is happening. Even parts of the water- rich Southeast have reached a crisis point because water has been taken for granted. We`ve had such abundance of it that it is very difficult to get the common person to recognize and understand that one day we may not have the amount we need.”
In some areas of the state, monitoring has revealed problems that have required reducing consumption or switching over to surface water supplies. The most notable case was Tupelo, which went from groundwater to surface water in the fall of 1991 because the aquifer was declining at unacceptable rates.
“It was evident with the continual growth they were experiencing that the groundwaters were not going to be able to meet those increasing demands,” Branch said.
Because of falling levels of the aquifer, Tupelo switched over to surface water supplies in the fall of 1991. Since that time water levels in the aquifer have risen more than 100 feet. Branch said the small outlying towns and rural water associations now are seeing water levels comparable to what they experienced back in the 1960s and 1970s.
Switching to surface water also guaranteed that enough water would be available for industrial and commercial growth in Tupelo.
Other parts of state
see aquifers dropping
Several other regions of the state are experiencing declines in groundwater supplies, and may eventually need to travel down the same road as Tupelo.
Glen Duckworth, executive director of the Union County Development Association, said New Albany has had difficulty over the past 15 years finding adequate water for wells.
“Water is essential for life, and for any kind of development,” Duckworth said. “Aquifers are dropping, and we`re concerned that is going to affect our future growth. Tupelo was in desperate measures. We aren`t that desperate yet. What we are trying to do is head it off before it reaches the crisis stage that Tupelo had to deal with.”
Union County`s experience shows that when water supplies are short, there can be alternatives that allow industrial growth to continue. For example, this month the single largest investment even in Union County was announced, a $70-million electrical generating facility. Duckworth said early in the development stages of the project it was determined there wasn`t enough water for coal-fired generators. So a decision was made to use gas turbine generators that have no water usage requirements.
Union County officials have been proposing the development of a reservoir for surface water supplies. TVA recently agreed to conduct an environmental study of alternative water supplies.
“They are going back a few steps, and evaluating all possible water supply alternatives,” Duckworth said. “We feel once the study is completed, the recommendation will probably be the reservoir we have already proposed locally. We expect it to eventually take over the entire water supply for the city, and possibly some of the rural water associations in the area. If that happens, the existing wells will be kept as a backup supply.”
Another area of the state where diminishing groundwater supplies are a concern is Madison County.
“We always want to make sure we have the adequate infrastructure to meet needs of the industries we`re out there recruiting,” Steve Vassallo, president of Madison County Economic Development. “And adequate groundwater supplies is certainly one of those needs.”
Emad Al`turk, chair of infrastructure committee for the Madison County Development Foundation, said that while it is known that the water table is declining two to three feet per year, what isn`t known is at what point groundwater supplies will be completely depleted.
Al`turk said the county doesn`t want to move to surface water prematurely because groundwater is cheaper than surface water. Surface water supplies that could be taken from the Ross Barnett Reservoir or the Big Black River would have to be treated, and it also costs money to pump water from those sources to where it is needed. Al`turk said the surface water alternatives will be evaluated only after it is determined when groundwater supplies will be depleted.
“If we`re talking 50 years in the future, it isn`t really an issue we have to deal with immediately,” he said. “If the time frame is a lot shorter, the county should start planning for alternative sources of water. And the alternative sources obviously would be surface water.”
Al`turk said to date the water situation hasn`t prevented any industry from locating in Madison County. But county officials want to deal with the problem so they won`t be in a position in the future where economic growth is stymied by lack of adequate water supplies.
Other areas of the Southeast where water supplies are expected to limit future growth include Atlanta, Georgia and Virginia Beach, Va., Lubbock, Texas pumps water from wells up to 120 miles away to meet their needs.
Delta declines not drastic
Groundwater supplies have also been a concern in the Delta, where the agricultural industry is almost totally dependent on groundwater. The Delta saw significant declines in the 1980s, but Branch said declines in the 1990s haven`t been as drastic. He attributes that to water conservation including a more efficient use of the water and a reduction in the volume of water used to grow various types of crops.
“There isn`t farmer up there who doesn`t realize this is not an abundant, endless supply of water that we have,” Branch said. “Because