Winter storm exposed frailty of water infrastructure in cities of the South
Cities throughout the South found out what happens when infrastructure past its shelf-life meets several days of temperatures below freezing.
Mains break. Pipes burst. As water leaks out of the system, water pressure falls below mandated levels. A boil advisory for those who have water ensues. That's what happened in Memphis, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Jackson, Mississippi.
Memphis utility leaders said Wednesday the city's water system had reached green status after the city had been under a precautionary boil advisory for six days. Once mandatory water pressure levels are reached, Memphis, Light, Gas and Water, with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's approval, will lift the advisory.
In Louisiana, nearly 1 million customers remained without drinkable tap water Wednesday, including about 200,000 in Shreveport, the state's third largest city.
In Jackson, water is slowly being restored for tens of thousands on the city’s water system, with expectations for all to be running by Friday, city officials said. Winter storms that hit Mississippi Feb. 14 and Feb. 17 brought snow, rain and below-freezing temperatures that froze pipes and made roads impassable as the city even ran out of chemicals needed to treat the water.
The problems faced in Jackson, Shreveport and Memphis show what happens when a lack of investment from cities coupled with infrastructure past retirement age meets unprecedented cold, experts and public officials said.
In Memphis, old infrastructure shows its years
Throughout the Memphis water crisis, MLGW has released a daily water status update. On it, the utility gave the status of each of its nine pumping stations as red, yellow and green.
On Wednesday, four Memphis pumping stations had red status. Three of those four were MLGW's oldest, according to a 2019 infrastructure audit.
Wilson Mallory Pumping Station on Dunlap Street was built in 1924 when Calvin Coolidge was president. James Sheahan Pumping Station, on Southern Avenue east of the University of Memphis, was built in 1932. And Allen Pumping station was built in the early 1950s.
In 2019, when engineering firm HDR, examined Mallory pumping station, it noted that its "electrical service and gear is beyond service life and specific elements exhibit corrosion and hazard."
The pumping stations that didn't reach "red' status this week were largely newer, built in the 50s through the 90s, and the HDR audit said.
The cold snap and snow were winter weather Memphis had not seen in decades. Without the successive storms and enduring cold, the city’s aged water system might have held up, MLGW leadership said during multiple news conferences this week.
MLGW CEO J.T. Young, and Nick Newman, the utility’s head of engineering, acknowledged this weekend that other local water systems, Germantown, Collierville and Bartlett, endured the same cold but didn't have the same problems.
Young and Newman said that the age and condition of Memphis' water system played a significant role in the boil water advisory.
Jackson issues up for debate
The issues with Jackson’s water woes vary depending on who’s speaking. City officials blame a hundred-year-old system that Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has said would cost about $2 billion to fix. In recent years, issues with lead in Jackson water samples brought up conversations about how the city was treating its water, whether the chemicals used were eroding residential pipes.
A lack of regular maintenance, combined with funding shortages and the area’s soil profile, produce a dire situation for the Jackson water system, said Sadik Khan, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Jackson State University.
“The overall thing is we need to have regular maintenance, and I believe the issue here is a lack of funding,” he said. “By not having that funding, we are letting our good structures go from good to fair … to bad.”
Khan said while he has not studied Jackson’s system, erosion over time without adequate maintenance could lead to parts of the system needing repair, and others needing to be replaced.
The system also is built in Yazoo clay, a thick, expansive material that can absorb water in large quantities, similar to a dry sponge. It also forces shifting of materials built within as water accumulates, as the clay expands and shifts, and changes composition in the drying process. Khan said larger cities such as Dallas and Houston in Texas have similar soil profiles but have far fewer issues with their water systems.
“But look at the economy in Dallas and Houston,” he said. “The economy is much larger. If we can stop the rain or stop the sun, it will solve the problem – which is not possible. In the meantime, we need to be innovative. It will need some funding. If we completely need to redo the work, it will take years.
“Right now, some kind of Band-Aid would work but (the city) will need cashflow, for sure.”
Shreveport's infrastructure shows its age, too
Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins said the city was finally able to resume sending water through virtually all of its pipes by noon Wednesday, but those on the system will likely remain under a boil order until Saturday.
Perkins said the combination of the weeklong freeze and two accompanying ice events created the worst water disaster in 91 years, bursting mains and valves all over the city.
The temperature remained below freezing for six days and reached a record low 1 degree in Shreveport on Feb. 16.
"Some of our pipes are 100 years old," Perkins told USA Today Wednesday. "They can't expand and contract under those kinds of extreme conditions without bursting."
He said 20 crews worked non-stop to repair and restore service as some residents were unable to access any water to drink, bathe or cook.
"We had medical emergencies that were having to be addressed in hospitals where water had to be trucked in," Perkins said. "We had residents who had to collect snow to put in toilets and bathtubs, but many people weren't able to physically do that."
He said now that the pipes are thawed and the water is flowing "it presents new problems because individuals are finding out that their pipes have burst. And now our industries have to determine what damage was done to their systems as the water comes back on line."
"We're not out of the woods," Perkins said. "It's important that people know we still have people here who are suffering and need help."