Nearly one year ago, thousands of residents in Mississippi’s capital city were without water for weeks when a winter storm shut down the city of Jackson’s main water treatment plant.
Today, the city’s head engineer says the plant is still another couple years away from having the protection it needs against a repeat winter weather event.
The city is also working to fix a new set of outages in south Jackson, which began last week after an equipment failure at the treatment plant as well as breaks in some of the water lines. City Engineer Charles Williams said that the issue was not weather related, and updated on Monday that it’ll take at least a couple days to rebuild pressure in the system.
Williams — who recently stepped aside as Public Works Director, but still oversees the water system — explained that while the city has improved the efficiency at the O.B. Curtis water treatment plant over the last year, the facility remains vulnerable to freezing weather.
“I’m not really sure how we would respond again to that right now,” Williams told Mississippi Today.
He said that because Jackson, like many Southern cities, never anticipated the kind of unrelenting freeze that struck last year, it will take a while to adjust.
“What we’ve been trying to articulate is this is not something that’s going to be done overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take probably a couple years for us to get to where we need to be.
“The likelihood of another winter storm coming, we don’t know. Obviously there have been some changes in the climate. It looks like the South is going to be a lot more affected with the polar vortexes that are coming down, bringing colder temperatures and potential for snow and ice.”
Williams specified that the long-term goal is to build enclosures around O.B. Curtis, especially on the side that intakes untreated water from the Ross Barnett Reservoir. A majority of the equipment at the plant is outdoors and exposed, which is why the cold had such devastating effects a year ago.
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He said he expects one new enclosure around the membrane side of the plant to be finished by April. The city recently secured $27 million through the federal Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund, which it’s spending on the enclosure as well as upgraded heat tracing at the plant to help warm the equipment and prevent freezing.
O.B. Curtis, Jackson’s primary treatment plant, is itself split into two filtering systems: the conventional and membrane sides, which each can treat 25 million gallons of water per day.
Williams said that after repairs the last few months, both sides of the plant are in better shape than when last year’s storm hit.
The conventional side, which uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria, was only running at about two-thirds capacity before the freeze. Williams said that a couple U.V. reactors still need repairs, which he hopes will take just another 30 to 45 days, but that the conventional side is running at its needed capacity.
On the other side, only three of the six membrane trains were running when the storm hit. Williams said that five of the six are now working, and that he expects to have the last one fixed by February.
He clarified that the train that went offline last week — which in part caused the current outages — didn’t break, but failed a test from the health department, forcing plant personnel to turn the train off.
As far as upgrades, the city is also looking at its aging distribution system: $8 million of the $42 million the city received through the American Rescue Plan Act is set to go towards a new 48-inch water main near Jefferson St. that will reach down to Interstate 20. Williams said the new line will bring better water pressure to south Jackson, and expects it to be in place by this time next year.
Jackson City Council also recently approved a 20% increase on water and sewer bill rates in addition to a $9,000 salary increase for treatment plant operators; both moves should help recruit and retain plant personnel, Williams said, and the added bill revenue will go towards routine maintenance.
He said the plant lost some staff over the last year, and described the situation as being “barebones” during the fall, although the department did recently hire a new operator and instrument technician. Operators are still the priority because federal law requires one of them to be at the plant 24/7, and Williams said he hopes to hire two more within the next month or so.