Cool, Clear Water Surfaces As Calling Card For Memphis Economic Development

Yet in Memphis, artesian wells release from the underground Memphis Aquifer an average of 135 million gallons of water used a day, water so pure that experts say it can save millions of dollars in costs for various types of industries.

That’s an economic development lure that the Greater Memphis Chamber is working to cast more aggressively. Parched areas of the country and awareness of climate change help make the timing right.

“I think what is new is that Memphis has something now that the ears of the world, the industrial ears, are really primed to listen to, because more and more they really are searching for it,” said Tom Volinchak, an industrial water systems expert in Memphis and founder of Sustainable Resource Technologies.

Mark Herbison, senior vice president of economic development for the chamber, said plans are underway to target four industries — food, electronics, chemical and apparel — that benefit from ample supplies of low-cost, high-quality water.

Dollars-and-cents examples provided by Volinchak can highlight advantages Memphis water hold over that in cities drawing their supplies form rivers or other above-ground sources:

A typical big industrial plant such as a refinery or yeast company will spend about $1.25 million a year on water treatment chemicals in Memphis. In Indianapolis, treatment of less pure water costs $4 million to $4.5 million.

Making soft water — an industrial staple free of dissolved minerals like calcium — costs about 12 cents to make 1,000 gallons in Memphis. It costs $2.10 in Indianapolis.

Purifying water for research in Memphis costs about 54 cents a gallon. In Indianapolis or Cleveland, the cost is about $6.

“So we’re just sitting on this natural resource where most of the other municipalities in the country are pulling water out of rivers and having to treat that water significantly with chemicals and all kinds of other processes,” Herbison said. “We’re not having to do that here.”

An artesian well is one where the water is under pressure. In Memphis, it flows up to be aerated and filtered at eight main and three other Memphis Light Gas & Water Division water pumping stations. Three chemicals — to sanitize, add fluoride and inhibit corrosion in 2,500 miles of water mains — are added, said officials at the city-owned utility.

Less need for treatment helps lead to lower water costs, lower maintenance costs for companies’ equipment and lower sewer costs because wastewater requires less treatment, Herbison said.

All are points to be highlighted for companies, consultants and real estate people in the targeted industries, he said. Memphis economic development teams also will be calling on areas where the water quality is poor or where water is in short supply.

Herbison likes to cite a stunning figure for the magnitude of underground water Memphis has to offer: 500 to 800 years.

However, that estimate is not endorsed by a top local ground water researcher and University of Memphis engineering professor, Brian Waldron.

“We can say we have 100 years of water, but at what quality if we contaminate it?” said Waldron, director of the Center for Applied Earth Sciences and Engineering Research, formerly known as the Ground Water Institute.

There are about 60 trillion gallons of water beneath Memphis and Shelby County, on average 2,000 to 3,000 years old, but some young as 13 years old where holes in a protective layer of clay have allowed poorer quality water to invade, he said.

“I think it’s great that the chamber is addressing the value our water has for economic growth and development,” he said. “We want that to happen, but we have to remain or be good stewards of what we have.”

“We can’t go about harvesting the water without understanding the repercussions of what we pull out and what the potential for contamination there may be,” Waldron said.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton established the Blue Stream Task Force that began work in April to identify ways to both protect and capitalize on the city’s water resources.

Protecting Memphis’ liquid asset, including the need for funding research, is part of the chamber’s initiative, Herbison said.

“That’s a big part of this is protecting what we’ve got and not doing anything drastic with our water supply until we completely understand what it’s going to look like in the future as well,” he said.

Still, Volinchak said that water is the new gold and that he looks on the current climate like the California gold rush — except with Memphis sitting on top of what industry wants.