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Mississippi versus Memphis in major water dispute

Water dispute spills over the Mississippi/Tennessee border. Recent developments explained.

It may come as a surprise to many that the state of Mississippi is engaged in a long-running lawsuit with the city of Memphis over water rights.

The case was explored during the April 17 Mid-South Agricultural and Environmental Law Conference, co-sponsored by Delta Farm Press.

Stephanie Showalter Otts, director of the National Sea Grant Law Center housed at the University of Mississippi, highlighted the case that has been going on for a decade and involves Mississippi claims that Memphis is stealing the state’s water from the Sands Aquifer.

“Having moved from the Northeast, I was shocked to learn that Memphis doesn’t draw its water from the Mississippi River,” said Otts. “The source of the city’s drinking water is from wells and they’ve been pumping groundwater from the aquifer from the early 1920s. There are a number of wells right on the Mississippi/Tennessee border.”

Mississippi claims the amount of pumping out of the Memphis Sands Aquifer by the city has created cones of depression, which suck water out of Mississippi into Tennessee.

“Back in 2005, Mississippi filed its first complaint against the city and the water utility. Mississippi argues that the water within the borders of the state is a sovereign resource that Tennessee has no right to.”

In 2008, the district court dismissed the suit on jurisdictional grounds. “They said you can’t sue the city of Memphis but must sue the state of Tennessee in the Supreme Court. Mississippi is seeking monetary damages.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has never applied the doctrine of equitable apportionment to a groundwater resource. That’s the legal issue that’s up in the air, right now. … If the Supreme Court does take the case the aquifer could be subject to equitable apportionment. It would be interesting to see whether the court feels future growth and agricultural water use in the Delta measures up to drinking water needs of the city of Memphis.

“I think this is a sign of things to come about groundwater. Even though we’re in a region that gets a lot of rain, there are groundwater issues in the Delta and there are wells that could potentially run dry in the future.”

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