“If water is a natural resource that is to be treasured and used like any other natural resource for economic development and other purposes, then it’s clear that the Memphis region is the ‘Saudi Arabia of water’ among the highly populated portions of North America.”
That is the view of a man who knows – Dr. Jerry L. Anderson, Director of the Ground Water Institute at the University of Memphis and a nationally known expert in the field. Memphis has the “sweetest, most wonderful tasting water in the world,” he said, in part because of the presence of so few minerals that the water can be used with little treatment when it is withdrawn from underground.
“That means we have water that is not only really palatable to the taste but also inexpensive to deliver to customers,” he said, speaking specifically of water drawn through wells from a layer of quartz granules known as “the Memphis sands.”
Water from these sands costs under $15 per 10,000 gallons per month delivered to residential customers, less than half of the cost in many parts of the country and only a third as much as in areas where the water has to be highly treated. If Memphis drew its water from the Mississippi River rather than from artesian wells, the cost would easily be three times more than it is, he said. Consequently, Memphis is one of the largest cities in the world to relay exclusively on ground water for its supply.
Memphis sands water is so pure when it comes from the approximately 250 wells in the Memphis area, Anderson said, that it has only to be aerated to eliminate iron and dissolved gases. The water is then filtered and subsequently submitted to chlorination and fluoridation, which is required by law for public drinking water but not for industrial use.
Withdrawal from the Memphis aquifer in Shelby County – nearly 350 feet beneath downtown Memphis and approximately 850 feet thick – is at the rate of about 210 mgd, well below capacity of an immense availability of water which rests just under the region.
The Memphis sands are shallow under the city of Memphis but rise virtually to the surface in the eastern part of Shelby County and the county immediately to the east. Water ages range from as few as 16 years as determined through radioisotope dating to as many as 2,000 years, typically becoming older with depth. And, because it is protected by strata of clay, ground water from the Memphis aquifer is ideal for industrial use where clean water is of major importance.
“The purity of water from the Memphis sands aquifer was one of the primary reasons that Coors selected Memphis as the site of its second brewery,” said Carolyn Hardy, vice president and plant manager of the Memphis plant. Other factors in the 1990 decision, she said, were the presence of an experienced workforce and Memphis’ role as a major international distribution center.
Far removed from beer is another example of a biotech company that chose Memphis in part because of its water – Viral Antigens Inc., the CEO and founder of which is Dr. Preston Dorsett.
“We make 95% of the rubella (German measles) vaccine used in this country, as well as other diagnostic and injectable products,” Dr. Dorsett said, “and one thing they all share in common is Memphis water which requires very little purification.”
To be specific Dr. Dorsett noted that in some cities the resin beds used in the reverse osmosis purification process for water usage in biotech manufacturing companies like his have to be cleaned every three or four days, but in Memphis the beds don’t require cleaning more than once every few months.
“That’s extraordinary, and one of the real pluses for cell culture companies like us to be in Memphis,” he said.
Although high-quality water from wells in the Memphis area is clearly abundant by contemporary standards, recharge of the aquifer can become a major issue at some point in the future.
“We don’t really know the rate at which the Memphis aquifer is replenished,” said Dr. Brian Waldron, a researcher at the Ground Water Institute, “nor do we know what the potential is for water degradation. Our job is to make certain that we know the answers to those questions before it is too late and to make certain that our water is as plentiful and as of high quality in the future as it is today.”