Greater Memphis: The Gold Standard for Water

Greater Memphis has an abundant supply of pure, sweet water: The Memphis Sands Aquifer holds nearly 100 trillion gallons of this precious commodity, which is becoming an economic development priority.

By Jon W. Sparks
From the May/June 2016 Issue

Interested in saving millions of dollars for your manufacturing company? Let’s talk about it over a glass of water—specifically, a glass of tap water from Memphis, Tennessee.

For manufacturers who spend a lot of money on water processing, drinking that water could be an eye opener—in addition to tasting better than what you’ll get in most places around the country.

“There is not a city or utility in the country that has better quality water than Memphis, Tennessee,” said Jerry Collins, president and CEO of the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, the utility that serves 421,000 customers in Memphis and Shelby County.

Memphis water
Pyramid Vodka Co-Owner Alexander Folk at the vodka distillery and distribution center in Memphis, TN.

That’s a bold statement, but one that is backed up by the thousands of tests done every year of the water supply.

The water emerges from the ground clear and requiring very little treatment. There is also plenty of it, coming from an aquifer that contains some 100 trillion gallons of water that fell to earth as long as 2,000 years ago. Those numbers can translate into impressive savings for manufacturers who come to Memphis.

“Manufacturers can save millions of dollars a year by using our water,” said Mark Herbison, Senior Vice President for Economic Development with the Greater Memphis Chamber.

Herbison is leading a team that is getting the word out to companies in North America that use a lot of water in the manufacturing process. “We’re looking at companies that are good for the environment, will stay for a long time and will offer manufacturing jobs that pay more with better benefits and offer career type opportunities,” he said. Here’s the elevator pitch he’s giving them:

  • We’ve got plenty: The water is underneath us, not coming by aqueducts or from lakes or rivers, so no shortages.
  • Purification: It comes out from the aquifer so pure that manufacturers need to do little or no pre-treatment.
  • Low cost: Industrial utility customers in Memphis pay half to a third of what many others do elsewhere in North America.
  • Reuse: If you have a cooling tower, water can be cycled up to 10 times. Elsewhere, you might only get to do it once.
  • What’s in it that’s good: It’s soft, it has low salt content and it comes with a very good pH balance.
  • What’s not in it that’s bad: No algae, bacteria, protozoans or Legionella. Nor does it have disinfection byproducts that are known to be carcinogens.
  • And it tastes so, so good.

Collins describes the refreshingly simple process that the utility uses to process the water: “The water comes out of the ground clear,” he said, “and it naturally contains iron which is not a concern. Our treatment process is to aerate the water, introducing oxygen which helps iron precipitate out, run it through filters that remove the precipitated iron and then add chlorine for disinfection to make sure there’s no bacteria growth as it goes through the distribution lines. We add fluoride for dental health, and sodium hexametaphosphate, a polyphosphate for corrosion control.”

Larry Jensen, the President and CEO of Commercial Advisors, LLC, has said that Memphis water is a gift that has benefits in quantity, quality and cost.

“We’ve got a client here in Memphis,” he said, “who tells me the water they get out of the pipe into their place is of almost distilled quality. That means they don’t have to prepare the water for production—it’s ready to be used.”

The number of breweries in Memphis is growing rapidly in large part to the ideal water supply. Pyramid Vodka is a spirit made in small batches with local ingredients, including corn, malted barley and Memphis artesian water. “It is one of the most important parts for us,” said co-founder Alexander Folk. “It’s one of the reasons we chose Memphis, because of the water source. It’s so smooth and it makes the vodka a little sweeter than other vodkas. We hardly do any processing. There’s no aging or other liquors added—all we do is take the chlorine out and filter it so we have a consistent product.”

Memphis water
An inside look at Memphis Light, Gas & Water’s Sheahan Pumping station. (Photo: TROY GLASGOW)

As Carolyn Hardy puts it, “We’re the gold standard when it comes to water, the best there is.”

Hardy is chief executive of Chism Hardy Investments LLC and chairman of the board for the Greater Memphis Chamber. She knows something about Memphis water, having been general manager of the Coors brewery until the company decided to shut down. She saw an opportunity and bought the plant, reopening it as Hardy Bottling Co.

“From a beverage and food standpoint, Memphis is a great place to be,” she said. “Our water is safer coming out of the ground. Also, if you have to filter the water, you lose some and gain costs in chemicals.” She said that her bottling plant installed a large reverse osmosis membrane in 2007. “In 2011, when I decided to sell the plant, we still hadn’t changed out the membrane. It had been inspected every year, but hadn’t needed changing.”

Hardy also says the water’s good taste is important in the beverage industry. “People don’t always think about it, but there is a taste. You want a refreshing experience and Memphis water provides that.”