21st century gold: the opportunity flowing in Memphis water

Local business, city and academic leaders agree that Memphis is sitting on top of and adjacent to its most vital resource – water. But how can the city best market, manage and sustain the system to stoke economic development across the Mid-South?

“I think water is the most significant issue for centers of population that they have to deal with going forward,” says Larry Jensen, President and CEO of Cushman & Wakefield/Commercials Advisors. “Here in Memphis, it’s a bountiful, wonderful resource, and we need to make sure we are managing it like an asset and carefully watching how we use it so it will still be around in 1,000 years.”
Jensen cites The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton, Chairman of the Gallup organization, as the spark for his reexamination of water as a major job-creating asset in this community. A growing number of Memphis leaders agree and have been collaborating to create a strategy around marketing the city's water supply in a more intentional way. The effort could result in luring new jobs and opportunity to the Bluff City.

“Water is probably more valuable than the transportation industry here since it takes 39,000 gallons of water to manufacture one automobile and 13 gallons of water to make one gallon of paint,” he says. “There are hardly any manufacturing processes that do not require a significant amount of water.”
At local breweries like Wiseacre Brewing, Memphis Made Brewing Company, or High Cotton Brewing Co., producing one gallon of beer requires an average of eight gallons of water, and producing one ton of steel at companies like NuCor Steel requires as much as 60,000 gallons of water. As a point of reference, the average swimming backyard swimming pool holds roughly 30,000 gallons.
Overall, the City of Memphis uses an estimated 200 million gallons per day, and a list of the Top 25 water users of 2012 included companies like NuCor, Kellogg's, Riviana Foods Inc., FedEx, Smith & Nephew Inc., and the J.M. Smucker Co.
“We’re sitting on a gold mine in two ways,” Jensen says. “We have arguably the best drinking water in the U.S., enhancing our quality of life. And there is also an opportunity to create a sustainability plan and recruit industry to come here.”
He believes Memphis is an ideal place for companies in the agricultural and manufacturing industries looking for a reliable, low cost water source.
“The river provides a huge transportation opportunity for jobs creation,” Jensen says. “NuCor Steel both takes water out of the river to cool steel and their inbound and outbound product travels via the river, and Riviana Foods (one of the largest manufacturers of pasta) and Smith+Nephew (medical device manufacturing) both use a lot of water.”
Many areas throughout the country suffer from massive problems that are tied to their water supplies. States like California pump fresh water in from as far away as the Colorado River more than 800 miles way, and residents in cities like Austin, Dallas and Phoenix must abide by water use restrictions.
In fact, the state of Georgia is even threatening to sue the state of Tennessee over the location of the Tennessee/Georgia border near Chattanooga because they contend they should have access to the Tennessee River to feed water to Atlanta.
Compared to a city like Atlanta, where 99 percent of the water supply for the region comes from surface water making the area dependent on regular rainfall, Memphis enjoys a location atop not one but three robust aquifers or underground rivers. Memphis does not pull from the furthest-from-the-surface shell aquifer, and only a few wells have struck the middle of the three aquifers, the Fort Pillow Aquifer, which is mostly used by the Navy base and a few nearby municipalities.
The uppermost aquifer, dubbed the “Memphis Sands,” was discovered in 1886 when a local ice retailer was looking for a reliable source of good water to make ice. He brought in a Chicago drilling company that hit the aquifer when they got to a depth of 350 feet.
The three aquifers combine to encompass 57 million gallons of water below Shelby County.
“We have the highest-quality water in the nation, and it requires minimal treatment,” says Brian Waldron, Director of the Ground Water Institute at the University of Memphis since 1999. “All we have to do is aerate it by introducing oxygen and it precipitates the iron out.”
The Ground Water Institute celebrates its 25th year next year. The center primarily investigates and researches the long-term sustainability of the Mid-South groundwater resources.
Waldron estimates that the water we drink is 2,000 to 3,000 years old – the time it takes to make its way as rainwater to the north in Fayette County to the aquifers below on the edge of Shelby County. Contaminants are filtered out over time, like an all-natural, slow-aged Brita filter, and clean, pure water arrives in the aquifers.
But what happens if we over-exploit the resource? Could it possibly make the ground below unstable or even leave us without clean or abundant water years down the road?
“We want to bring awareness to the fact that we know how much water is in the aquifers and how much we are taking out, but we do not know yet how much is going in. So to understand sustainability for the long-term, we have to calculate the recharge rate,” says Waldron. “It’s probably the most vital piece of information that the community needs, and yet our research is poorly funded.”
The city recently formed the Blue Stream Task Force to take a closer look look at the streams, rivers and groundwater of the area and its sustainability, and the team already includes 35 volunteers who are water experts in their particular field.

"For navigation, we will look at river industries, infrastructure to expand current and and future port accessibility, river to ocean exports, and river commodities," says Ted Fox, Shelby County Director of Public Works. "For environment, we would look at agriculture, recreation, consumption and wildlife. And for economic development, we would look at the manufacturing industries in the area, drink and food processing, power generation, and exporting the Memphis Made label."

Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton is also Co-Chair of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative that formed the Mississippi River Sustainable Development Fund last month in order to encourage large, creative riverside projects that focus on sustainability.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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