Jackson Water Crisis: City was not prepared for 2021 storms, not ready for more

Published: Feb. 15, 2022 at 5:59 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - It was the one-two punch that no one expected, and the knockout blow the city of Jackson was ill-prepared for.

A year ago, winter storms ripped across the state, leaving thousands of people stranded and without power and crippling the city of Jackson’s ability to provide the most basic of all needs: clean drinking water.

The O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, Jackson’s primary water treatment facility, was nearly shut down when two arctic fronts brought in days of below-freezing temperatures, lowering temperatures of the Barnett Reservoir and causing plant equipment to freeze up.

“The first initial forecast was the storm would come through the night before Valentine’s Day and drop the temperatures. We’d probably have some sleet and ice, and then the next phase of that would be we’d go through a normal warm-up,” recalled City Engineer Charles Williams. “But that didn’t happen. We had another storm that came through late Tuesday, going into Wednesday.”

City Engineer Williams looks over documents at his desk.
City Engineer Williams looks over documents at his desk.(WLBT)

The storms dropped surface temperatures on the Ross Barnett Reservoir, the water supply for the Curtis plant, the city’s main water treatment facility, to just five degrees above freezing.

That colder water, coupled with days of sub-freezing temperatures, led to equipment failures across the water treatment system.

“We started experiencing some issues at the plant when the first wave came through,” Williams said. “But by that Wednesday, we had hit what I called Ground Zero, where we just couldn’t bring any water in, and we couldn’t send any water out.”

“I think no one expected the magnitude of snow and ice. You could not go anywhere. Luckily, I told myself to take my four-wheel-drive home, or I would have not been able to get to the plant,” he said. “You almost had four or five inches of ice on the roads.”

February 15 weather reports from the National Weather Service indicated Hinds County received as much as four inches of snow and nearly two inches of freezing rain and ice.

Adding to that were multiple days of below-freezing temperatures.

In its November 2021 Cold Weather Report, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reported that Jackson experienced five consecutive days of sub-freezing temperatures, including two consecutive days where average thermometer readings never got above 20 degrees.

That cold weather crippled the water treatment plant.

The problems started with the raw water screens – the first step in the water treatment process.

Those screens, which filter large debris out of water coming in from the reservoir, froze over--meaning no water could get into the plant to be treated.

“We couldn’t bring any water in. And we could not send any water out,” Williams said. “Pressure dropped throughout the entire city.”

O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant
O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant(WLBT)

Once the water comes into the plant, it is treated in one of two ways. It can be diverted into the conventional system, where it is sent to settle in three 10 million-gallon basins and then is chemically treated before being sent to the plant’s clear well, and then into the distribution system.

Water also can be diverted into the membrane filtration system, where it bypasses the conventional basins and is sent through six membrane filtration units and treated.

At full capacity, the plant can sanitize up to 50 million gallons of water per day.

At the height of the crisis, though, water production dropped to less than half that. Some 43,000 connections were without water as a result. Those connections included almost all of the homes and businesses served by Jackson’s surface water system and represent more than 100,000 people.

“The narrative was we had all of these breaks that occurred, like back in 2018, and it wasn’t. This was really the primary issue: the inability to bring water in and put water into the distribution system,” Williams said.

Williams, who was public works director at the time of the crisis, said crews initially had to rebuild water pressure at the water plant so it could then push water out into the system.

He said his department immediately began consulting with operators and other experts to put together a mitigation plan to get the plant back online.

Meanwhile, city leaders scrambled to get bottled water and non-potable water to the tens of thousands of residents left high and dry.

Socrates Garrett Enterprises was one of those contracted to distribute non-potable water so residents could flush toilets.

SGE staffers worked several 12-hour days to accommodate customers’ needs. It also volunteered to distribute drinking water and direct traffic for the city free of charge and hired some students from Forest Hill High to help with the effort.

“I don’t think anybody knew the water crisis would be that devastating and last that long,” Garrett said. “Lines wrapped around Forest Hill High School and went on for miles.”

South Jackson was one of the hardest-hit areas, in part, because it is so far away from the Curtis plant. Because of the drop in pressure, homes and businesses at higher elevations, like the top of Fondren, also were impacted.

Some residents resorted to melting snow to take medicine and flush their toilets.

Kehinde Gaynor put a bucket outside his South Jackson home to catch rainwater.

“You couldn’t wash clothes, we couldn’t wash our bodies,” he told Investigative Reporter C.J. LeMaster. “When it would rain I’d have a bucket right out there on my deck to catch water. And I’m like, ‘this is archaic. This is 2021. And I’m living like I’m in Little House on the Prairie.”

Gaynor’s home was without water for 18 days. Even when water was restored, it would be another two weeks or so before he and his family no longer had to boil it before use.

“As a man, as a father, you want to be a provider. You want to cover your family, but when things are out of your control, you know, like utilities, it puts you in a defeating place,” he said. “It puts you in a really scared place because you can’t give your family the basics.”

Ward Six Councilman Aaron Banks shares Gaynor’s concerns. “The biggest thing is, is that the water from O.B. Curtis has the farthest to travel to get to South Jackson,” he said. “Between Forest Hill Road and Rainey Road, that subdivision gets hit first almost all the time. And Mayfair subdivision. Those are some higher elevations south.”

Banks says his ward has experienced water problems for years. In January 2022, for instance, several dozen residents in South Jackson again experienced low and/or no water pressure due to a series of main breaks and filter problems at Curtis.

Jackson Councilman Aaron Banks discusses Jackson's water treatment system.

The councilman spoke to WLBT as the city was working to restore running water to dozens of customers following that crisis.

“A lot of that goes to the nature of how South Jackson and parts of it came into the city of Jackson, and how most of it was very rural,” he said. “There are still areas of South Jackson where people are riding horses down Rainey Road and McCluer Road. And there are long stretches of woods and trees before you get from one community to the next community, which makes it a vast area.”

“Whenever we have a break, and when you have cold weather and you hit a line, you can have a series of lines to bust. When that happens, when people upstream are consuming water, it causes the pressure to drop in tanks.”

To maintain service for all city customers, water pressure has to be around 90 PSI. Last February, water pressure fell to a little more than half that as a result of the Curtis shutdown.

“We had gotten down internally to somewhere around 55 PSI. So, we had to build the pressure up at the plant. We closed some valves off. That worked,” Williams recalled. “Then we reversed that plan, and once we were able to bring water into the system, we got some additional UVs that were down, to allow us to bring more flow back into the plant.”

Even so, it took weeks to build back that pressure. And even when taps could again be turned on, customers were under a boil water notice for weeks.

“It was a very frustrating time, but we were able to work through some things, work through some personalities, and we were able to get the system back on track,” Williams said. “But obviously, as you know, it took a lot longer than everyone anticipated.”

The city’s restoration efforts were hampered by a number of issues. Among them, its water storage tanks had been drained.

Jackson has about 15 or 16 storage tanks across the city, all of which were emptied in the immediate hours following Curtis’ crash.

The city also experienced some water main breaks as pressure was restored in the distribution system.

Meanwhile, inspections conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and Mississippi State Department of Health a year prior to the storm showed the city already had numerous deficiencies at both of its water treatment facilities.

According to the March 2020 report, monitoring equipment at O.B. Curtis had not been repaired or calibrated in the three years after a technician position at the plant had been vacated.

The city also was unable to perform membrane integrity tests and had failed to perform filter maintenance at both the Curtis plant and the J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plant.

Additionally, UV disinfection devices were “offline for significant periods of time” at both treatment plants, with one at the Fewell plant being offline for 3.5 months. Eight other UV reactors, some at both plants, were offline anywhere from two to 31 days, the report stated.

EPA also had cited the city for a lack of staffing at both plants.

The city had not addressed those problems prior to the February crisis.

A year and a half after that inspection, a November 2021 inspection revealed Jackson again had done little to address those deficiencies.

In January, the EPA issued a notice of noncompliance to the city for failing to make repairs to the Curtis plant following a fire that broke out there in April 2021.

On April 30, an electrical fire at the plant shut down the Curtis facility for a short time.

“The fire... caused all of the high service #2 pumps to be taken out of service. At the time of 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.

Jackson ordered the part to repair the pumps in January 2022, around the time the EPA issued its order of noncompliance.

Williams, though, said the city is working to address EPA concerns, while at the same time has plans to winterize the Curtis plant so it can better handle winter weather.

Public Works is expected to bid out a winterization project this month. That winterization work would include insulating above-ground piping at the plant’s raw water station, moving the soda ash pumps into the old lime pump room, and installing a new soda ash tank.

Additionally, the city is working to build an enclosure around the membrane filters to better protect them from the elements.

“Hopefully, that will assist us going into the winter of 2023 as it relates to having some heat tracing and some other mechanisms in place to help when the temperatures drop again,” Williams said.

As for staffing concerns, Williams said Jackson now has eight water operators at Curtis, including four that have received their Class A certifications. Ideally, he said the plant needs 12, which would allow one person to be on duty at the facility 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The city has been able to increase its ranks, in part, by raising pay for water operators. The council recently approved boosting pay for that position by $10,000. (The amount still falls about $7,000 below the state average, according to Salary.com.)

“It’s trending in the (right) direction. We appreciate the council and the mayor for authorizing those raises,” he said. “We still need to look at adjusting salaries for the support staff as far as maintenance. But that was a big win for us in being able to get those salaries increased.”

As the city looks to continue filling positions and making repairs, leaders continue to keep an eye on the thermometer and are hoping this year, Mother Nature pulls her punches.

“The system is vulnerable at any particular time. Obviously, we have to make some adjustments at the plant to deal with, you know, ice storms that could potentially come,” Williams said. “My focus or my concern is just being consistent just on a day-to-day operation and in making those necessary improvements.”

This is part one of a three-part series on the city’s water system.

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