WLBT granted exclusive tour of O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant

WLBT granted exclusive tour of O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - On Thursday, 3 On Your Side was given an exclusive tour of ground zero for Jackson’s winter water crisis – the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.

Public Works Director Charles Williams agreed to the tour to help the public better understand how the recent winter storms caused interruptions in water service for homes and businesses across the city.

The tour came more than a week into the crisis, and as half of the 43,000 customers served by Curtis were still experiencing low or no water pressure.

“We wanted you to get a feel for what it takes to run a water treatment facility. It’s not easy,” Williams said. “It takes a lot of manual resources, as far as personnel. It also takes a lot of equipment to run a plant.

“All of (the equipment) has to be operational at all times to get water to our citizens ... safe water to our citizens.”

Early last week, a winter storm ripped across Mississippi, bringing with it freezing rain, sleet, snow, and sub-freezing temperatures. The weather wreaked havoc on the plant, causing several major pieces of equipment to stop working. A second storm came through in the middle of the week.

The brunt of the wintry weather was felt at the plant’s water intake area.

Curtis is located on a couple of acres located off of Lake Harbour Drive in Ridgeland.

It pumps in water from the Ross Barnett Reservoir, which is then filtered through large “water screens,” and diverted to a conventional settling tank.

Pumps at the O.B. Curtis malfunctioned following the winter storm, contributing to the city's water crisis.
Pumps at the O.B. Curtis malfunctioned following the winter storm, contributing to the city's water crisis. (Source: WLBT)

The storm caused surface water temperatures at the reservoir to fall to 48 degrees. That surface temperature, coupled with the sub-freezing outside temperatures, led to the water screens freezing up, Williams said.

“Those froze and we couldn’t bring water in,” he said. “When the water gets to 48 degrees and the temperature outside is below 32 it’s a bad combination.”

Plant workers discovered the problem the Saturday following the storms.

“We got the screens back working and then we had an issue with the raw water pumps,” he said.

Raw water pumps bring in water directly from the reservoir, which is then filtered through the water screens and sent to the 10-million-gallon-capacity conventional basin, where it is allowed to settle.

From there, the water is chemically treated before being sent out into the city’s water distribution system.

Water is allowed to settle at the Curtis plant's conventional basin before it is chemically treated.
Water is allowed to settle at the Curtis plant's conventional basin before it is chemically treated. (Source: WLBT)

The conventional method is one of two ways the plant treats water.

In addition to the conventional method, it also treats water through a membrane system, where raw water is brought in from the reservoir, diverted past the conventional basin, and pushed through membrane filters.

Public Works Director Charles Williams examines the Curtis plant's membrane filtration unit.
Public Works Director Charles Williams examines the Curtis plant's membrane filtration unit. (Source: WLBT)

Curtis was constructed in the late 1980′s or early 1990′s and was expanded in 1997, Williams said. Today, it has the capacity to treat about 50 million gallons of water a day.

During the height of the crisis, water production at the facility fell to about 20 million gallons a day.

With the drop in production, pressure in the distribution system fell off. As a result, customers across the city lost water pressure. Pressure at Curtis must stay at around 90 pounds per square inch to ensure that water is pushed out throughout the city’s distribution system.

As of Thursday night, PSI at Curtis was still between 78 and 80, Williams said.

Treatment efforts were also hampered because two ultraviolet filters had gone down prior to the storm. Contractors were unable to come out and make repairs because of icy conditions.

“We were able to get them fixed internally,” he said. “That limited our ability to get water out.”

As the city addresses problems at the plant, it also is turning its attention to water main breaks.

As the pressure in the system is restored, the city expects water lines in the distribution system to rupture, something that could cause PSI again to drop.

Public works also will be looking at what, if anything, could have been done differently to prevent the crisis.

“That is something we’re going to have to evaluate,” he said. “Once we get everything restored, we need to lay everything on the table and have a thorough discussion about this particular event, what we learned from it, everything that went wrong, and what are some strategies we can put in place to prevent it from at least minimally happening again.”

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