News | September 22, 2021

Memphis leaders enact drinking water protections

The wellhead protection overlay district is a first step in providing critical safeguards for the Memphis Sand Aquifer
Ensuring clean water safeguards in Memphis has been a community effort. Photo by

Yesterday, the Memphis City Council unanimously passed a much-needed ordinance that creates added protections for Memphians’ health and their drinking water. This historic vote is a first step toward closing the regulatory gaps that have left the city’s sole drinking water source under-protected for decades.

Ordinance 5795 creates a wellhead protection overlay district, which will limit certain land uses, including crude oil pipelines, near areas where drinking water is pumped from the Memphis Sand Aquifer to the surface.

We are glad the Memphis City Council is finally taking this crucial first step to protect our water and help end a legacy of environmentally unjust and environmentally racist projects in our neighborhoods.

Justin Pearson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against Pollution

SELC and our partners applaud the city council for taking this critical step, which comes just a few months after Memphians celebrated another major victory: the cancellation of the Byhalia Pipeline. The now-scrapped crude oil pipeline would have been built directly above the Memphis Sand Aquifer and put millions of gallons of groundwater at risk of being contaminated with hazardous chemicals. The project highlighted the need for these additional safeguards. 

“Even though the Byhalia Pipeline is cancelled, there will be plans for more high-risk projects that endanger the Memphis Sand Aquifer in the future,” says Protect Our Aquifer Executive Director Sarah Houston. “This ordinance creates long-overdue protections that will help prevent contamination in vulnerable parts of our aquifer system.”

These new safeguards will better protect predominantly Black neighborhoods in southwest Memphis, which are surrounded by polluting facilities. Residents living in these communities deal with an unfair share of industrial pollution and cancer rates in this area are four times the national average.  

“Industrial projects often target southwest Memphis communities, which are predominantly Black and have a history of being overburdened with pollution,” says Justin J. Pearson, co-founder of Memphis Community Against Pollution. “We are glad the Memphis City Council is finally taking this crucial first step to protect our water and help end a legacy of environmentally unjust and environmentally racist projects in our neighborhoods.”

While this vote is significant, it is only a first step in giving full protection to Memphians and their drinking water. The Memphis City Council is continuing to discuss Ordinance 5784, which mandates that crude oil pipelines must be 1,500 feet away from schools, churches, parks and homes, and Ordinance 5794, which would allow local leaders to weigh environmental justice impacts of pipelines and gives them the ability to stop dangerous projects that could lead to contamination of the Memphis Sand Aquifer, which provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Memphians. 

“The Memphis Sand Aquifer is the city’s most important natural resource and the Byhalia Pipeline is a prime example of the persistent threats reckless industrial projects pose to the health of our drinking water and our communities,” says Senior Attorney George Nolan. “We thank the city council members for listening to the community and taking this important first step, and we are eager to continue working with local leaders to keep risky projects away from the aquifer.” 

Memphis is one of the largest cities in the world to draw all of its municipal drinking water from an underground aquifer. Even a small amount of crude oil leaked from a pipeline could put millions of gallons of aquifer water, and the Memphians who rely on it, at risk. 

Adds Scott Banbury, Conservation Coordinator for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, “Memphians deserve to know their drinking water is not polluted with hazardous chemicals. This ordinance is a first step toward making sure the aquifer is free of contamination and can be enjoyed by generations to come.”