Most of Southaven and Horn Lake have enjoyed cheap sewage treatment from the city of Memphis for decades, and DeSoto County officials are fighting to keep it that way.
With the contract for service set to expire in 2023 and Memphis having no intent to extend it, both parties have taken the issue to federal court. In an attempt to end the litigation, DeSoto County offered to pay Memphis nearly five times what it pays now to extend the contract for another 30 years.
That offer is still well below market rates, though, and less than half of what customers are charged in the areas served by the county’s own sewer service.
On Nov. 5, attorneys for the Horn Lake Creek Basin Sewer Interceptor District sent Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland a letter offering to pay $1.80 per 1,000 gallons treated if the contract were extended. The current rate for DeSoto County is $0.40 per 1,000 gallons. For comparison, Memphis charges retail customers within city limits $3.32 for that level of treatment. The DeSoto County Regional Utility Authority has charged its customers $3.64 for the same service.
Memphis leaders have not responded to the offer or acknowledged it publicly. Officials at The DeSoto County Regional Utility Authority did not respond to interview requests for this article by the time of publication.
"For the past 45 years we have enjoyed a good and mutually beneficial relationship with Memphis regarding sewer service. What we are offering in exchange for substantially higher rates is to continue that relationship rather than engaging in the current extensive and expensive litigation," Charles Davis, the chairman of the sewer district, said in the letter to Strickland.
Memphis does not see the agreement as mutually beneficial, and Strickland has claimed that the massive population and industrial growth seen in Southaven and Horn Lake over the course of the agreement is due in part to Memphis subsidizing that growth with cheap sewage treatment.
Multiple Memphis city officials have also said that further development in Memphis is being hindered by a sewage treatment system in desperate need of expansion and repairs. Freeing up the space taken up by DeSoto County sewage is one component of the city’s plans to address these issues.
“Memphis residents can no longer shoulder the burden of supplying amenities for municipalities outside of Shelby County and the state of Tennessee,” Ursula Madden, Memphis’ chief communications officer, said last year.
Both DeSoto County and Memphis have filed federal lawsuits over a fundamental disagreement over Memphis’ right to not extend the contract.
The legal argument stems from the omission of a single sentence from the original 1975 agreement in the revised agreement signed in 1983. The latter agreement was made to regulate industrial dischargers in DeSoto County and reset the 40-year-term of the original agreement. It also left out the part that said the agreement would be “subject to review and change agreeable to both parties” when it expired.
Lawyers for Memphis argue that neither agreement requires the city to extend the contract. Lawyers for DeSoto County argue in their suit that any change being “agreeable to both parties” is a binding requirement of the agreement and was not nullified in 1983.
In their suit, the Sewer District claims that if Horn Lake and Southaven were to stop receiving sewage service from Memphis in 2023, it would lead to massive sewage overflow that would contaminate soil, groundwater, and surface water near the county line.
Memphis first gave notice that the contract would not be renewed in 2018 and requested that the Horn Lake Creek Basin Interceptor Sewer District develop a plan for the separation. The letter also stated that the City would temporarily and conditionally extend the contract if DeSoto County could not build the necessary infrastructure before it expired.
With a cost estimate of $75-85 million for that project, the Sewer District decided to file a lawsuit instead. Memphis filed its own suit three days later. Both lawsuits are slowly inching forward in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, and their outcomes will forever shape the landscape and economy of DeSoto County.