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Inspection shows more than 40 percent of treated water never reaches Jackson customers

Public Works Director Charles Williams discusses how water is processed at the O.B. Curtis...
Public Works Director Charles Williams discusses how water is processed at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.(WLBT)
Published: Dec. 15, 2021 at 5:34 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - More than 40 percent of the water treated at Jackson’s treatment facilities never makes it to the customers, according to a report from the Mississippi State Department of Health.

The report was compiled following a November inspection of the city’s water treatment facilities.

According to the report, “the water loss report presented at the inspection showed an annual water loss of greater than 40 percent.”

That water is treated at the O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell plants but is lost in the distribution system either through water main breaks, leaks at water meters, or other disruptions in the system.

Jackson pays to treat that water, but because it never goes through a meter, customers never receive it and are never billed for it.

“That’s a very high number,” said City Engineer Charles Williams. “Obviously, we want that number reduced.”

Williams discussed the report at a meeting with the Jackson City Council. On Tuesday, the city raised water and sewer rates by 20 percent, in part, to help raise additional money to address EPA mandates.

The rate increases also come as the Water Sewer Billing Administration works to sort out challenges with its billing system and as Jackson’s water department operates at a continued deficit.

In 2017, the city brought in $61 million in water and sewer revenues but had $65 million in expenses. The following year, revenues were $57 million, while expenses were $67 million and in 2019, revenues were $49 million, while expenses were $77 million.

The city was able to make up for the deficits by using one-percent infrastructure tax money and general fund revenues.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, studies show that on average, cities lose 14 percent of the water they treat due to leaks.

The 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, meanwhile, shows that “an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water (are) lost each day in the U.S.”

The report card is put out each year by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The society states that the amount of water lost is enough to fill more than 9,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

In Jackson, the 40 percent loss equates to about 20 million gallons of water per day, with the Curtis and Fewell plants being able to treat up to 50 million gallons coming in from the Pearl River and Ross Barnett Reservoir.

Jackson is expected to spend a little more than $1 million on chemicals for the Fewell plant this year and another $1,850,000 on treatment chemicals for the Curtis plant, the city’s budget book shows.

The amounts account for a relatively small portion of the city’s overall water budget. In 2019, the city had roughly $77 million in water and sewer expenses, according to Chief Financial Officer Fidelis Malembeka.

Williams said the key to addressing the problem is fixing the distribution system. “Today, they plan on repairing a 16-inch water line. Think about the thousands of gallons of lost water over the last couple of days because that 16-inch main has been leaking,” he said.

The city engineer was referring to a repair project that took place Tuesday along U.S. 80.

The inspection also revealed other deficiencies, including the fact that all of the “high service” pumps taken out of service in the April 30 fire at the Curtis plant still had not been repaired.

An electrical fire broke out at the Curtis facility in April, temporarily halting water production there. Williams said the fire was likely caused by a power surge.

“At the time of the inspection, there was no target date to have the pumps repaired and put back in service. The loss of these five pumps has caused multiple elevated tanks to be low or empty and has caused certain areas of the distribution to have sustained low pressure,” the report states. “The loss has also caused the city’s design capacity to go from 78 percent in 2020 to 93 percent in 2021.”

In other words, with the pumps out of service, Jackson is nearer capacity in terms of how many people can be served by its system.

“We are working on plans to get pumps back in service,” Williams said. “We have a vendor and we went to the council to get approval for payment. We’re trying to get that payment on the docket so they can go ahead and start getting the equipment and make the repair.”

On November 9, the council approved a roughly $366,000 contract with Allied Industrial Services to repair the pumps. Williams wasn’t sure when work would begin, saying that supply chain issues have impacted Allied’s ability to get the parts needed to do the work.

“By us not having High Service No. 2 on, it takes away our capacity,” said Williams. “We want to get that number back down so we can have the capacity to serve more people.”

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