A federal judge on Sept. 22, 2023, gave Southaven, Horn Lake and unincorporated parts of DeSoto County areas eight years to to move off Memphis’ sewer system. Credit: City of Southaven

A federal judge ruled late last week that Southaven, Horn Lake and some unincorporated parts of DeSoto County have eight years to redirect their wastewater after relying on Memphis for nearly 50 years.

The sections of DeSoto County, represented by the Horn Lake Creek Basin Interceptor Sewer District, have argued with Memphis officials for years over when Memphis could stop treating the north Mississippi suburbs’ wastewater. Memphis has treated the Mississippi towns’ sewage since 1975.

Memphis notified the sewer district in 2018 that it wanted to end the relationship so it could focus resources on its own residents. Since then, the two sides have battled in court over how much longer the sewer district could send sewage to Memphis before building its own new infrastructure, which the district estimates costing $230 million.

The district’s consulting engineer, Tim Verner, said it would take a minimum of eight to 10 years for it to build its own sewer treatment facility, but could take up to 13 years if the district runs into permitting issues, according to court filings.

U.S. District Judge Mark Norris, in his ruling last Friday, explained that he was giving the sewer district only eight years because it’s been five years since Memphis first said that it would not renew the contract.

Keith Turner, an attorney for the sewer district, told Mississippi Today that there are still some obstacles that need addressing.

“As we’ve told the court, there are a lot of variables that are out of our control,” Turner said.

He listed funding as the primary concern. In June, Southaven Mayor Darren Musselwhite told Mississippi Today that the district plans to get about half of the $230 million from state and federal funding, and then procure the rest of the funds from bonds and low-interest loans. Turner also said that acquiring property and easements to run new sewer lines through could also be a challenge.

The new sewer system, which would be operated under the DeSoto County Regional Utility Authority, would require significant expansions to the already-existing Johnson Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Norris’ ruling also requires the sewer district to increase its rates. Under the previous agreement, the district only pays Memphis 96 cents per 1,000 gallons. Norris sided with Memphis officials, who argued that the DeSoto County towns should pay the wholesale $3.32 per 1,000 gallon rate that other suburbs — such as Collierville, Lakeland, and Millington — pay. The judge’s order gradually increases the rates for the DeSoto County customers until the sewer district disconnects from Memphis’s infrastructure.

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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 NBC.com. 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.