Credit: C.J. LeMaster, WLBT

DeSoto County officials believe they’ll need at least 10 years to move off Memphis’ sewer system, as a federal judge’s decision looms over how and when the connection will cease.

Memphis notified Southaven, Horn Lake, and unincorporated parts of DeSoto County in 2018 that it intended to not renew a 48-year contract between the entities. But it wasn’t until a judge’s ruling earlier this year that the termination process officially began.

Since 1975, the Mississippi towns have sent their sewage to Memphis through a local body called the Horn Lake Creek Basin Interceptor Sewer District. But the sewer district, on behalf of the Mississippi towns, and Memphis have each sued the other in the last few years over whether or not the contract would, in fact, end.

Memphis leaders said in 2018, when it sent the notice, that the city wanted to focus more of its resources towards its own residents’ wastewater, and no longer wanted the burden of assisting the growing suburbs to the South.

The initial 1975 contract says that the agreement “shall remain in effect for forty (40) years from the date hereof and at the expiration of said time shall be subject to review and change agreeable to both parties.” In 1983, the two sides agreed to extend the deal until 2023.

In Southaven, where the population has grown from 15,000 in 1980 to about 55,000 in 2020, Mayor Darren Musselwhite said that the two sides had different interpretations of the contract, and it wasn’t until a judge’s ruling in March that confirmed that the deal will expire this coming September. He said about 75,000 connections in DeSoto County are using the Memphis sewer system.

Southaven Mayor Darren Musselwhite. Credit: City of Southaven

“(The sewer district) disagreed with Memphis in 2018 that the contract would end, they felt like the contract said it would be renegotiated,” Musselwhite said. “So that’s what we’ve been waiting five years on to know.”

Now, after the two sides failed to reach a settlement, U.S. District Judge Mark Norris will issue a final ruling over how many more years, and at what billing rate, Memphis will continue to handle the Mississippi towns’ wastewater.

Memphis is arguing that the new system — which would fall under the already-existing DeSoto County Regional Utility Authority, or DCRUA — could be built within seven years, while Musselwhite and the sewer district believe it would take to 10 to 12.

“I felt like Memphis was very ridiculous in some of their comments,” the mayor said. “It’s a major project.”

He said that DCRUA will have to redirect and pump the water to the new facility. With its current setup, DeSoto County benefits by being on an uphill slope from Memphis, making it easier to send the city its wastewater.

The biggest obstacle, though, is funding. The sewer district estimates it’ll cost $230 million to build the new system.

Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch Credit: Gil Ford Photography

So far, the state Legislature has allocated $12 million for the project, Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, told Mississippi Today. Parker said the local entities will put up about $9 million of initial funding. Musselwhite said the district will look for about $50 million in piecemeal federal support, including from recent infrastructure bills, $50 million from the state, and then pay for the rest with bonds and low-interest loans.

Another point of dispute in the ongoing legal battle is how much customers in Southaven, Horn Lake and the other areas should have to pay. Memphis charges other suburbs, such as Collierville, Lakeland, and Millington, a wholesale rate of $3.32 per 1,000 gallons, while only charging the DeSoto County sewer district 96 cents per 1,000 gallons, the Commercial Appeal reported. While Memphis argued the district should pay what the other suburbs are being charged, the district’s attorneys said there’s no reason to change the way the rates have been calculated for decades.

Parker, whose district includes the towns receiving Memphis’ sewer service, recently authored a bill attempting to create a regional utility authority for Jackson, which would’ve put most of the decision-making power in state leaders’ hands.

“I think the Memphis system will miss us… will miss the revenue,” Parker said. “It may not be in my lifetime, but when things degrade over time, as a lot of the metro cities are suffering the same kind of financial strife and having to make major repairs.”

Parker added that lawmakers may try to redirect state money that could have gone to Jackson towards DeSoto County.

“My thought is that since Jackson got $800-plus million (in a recent federal investment), when we were looking at maybe having to give them a large sum from the state, maybe some of that money we anticipated going to Jackson can go to DeSoto County in the future,” he said.

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said that Parker’s comment ignored the fact Jackson still needs financial support for its wastewater system, a need the city has estimated to be $1 billion.

“I do think it’s ironic that the same legislators who were so against putting resources into Jackson’s wastewater problems are now planning to come to the Legislature for their wastewater woes,” Horhn told Mississippi Today. “If they are successful, I think that would show a double standard exists in the Mississippi Legislature.”

“I think from my standpoint, I’m standing ready to promote funding for Jackson’s wastewater issues even if it means trying to amend legislation for DeSoto County,” Horhn said. “The local government’s failure to prepare for this contract ending reminds me of the local leadership’s decision making in Jackson with the garbage contract.”

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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.