Supervisors agree on helping Jackson with its water crisis. They’re at odds over how they’ll do it.

Supervisors Robert Graham and David Archie say the county's ARPA funding should go to making...
Supervisors Robert Graham and David Archie say the county's ARPA funding should go to making repairs at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.(WLBT)
Published: Sep. 6, 2022 at 6:51 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Hinds County supervisors want to use federal funding to help Jackson with its water needs. They’re just at odds over exactly how they’re going to do it.

Some say the money, which would amount to anywhere between $13.5 million and $19.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars, should go to help fix Jackson’s aging water pipes and install a new water tower, while others say it should go to repairs at the capital city’s embattled water treatment plant.

The news comes about a week after equipment failures at Jackson’s O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant caused water outages for tens of thousands of customers across the city. The state has since jumped in to help make repairs at the facility, which supplies water to approximately 43,000 connections.

Meanwhile, whether the county has the money to allocate to either option remains to be seen, with approximately $29 million of its $44 million in ARPA dollars already obligated to projects.

Tuesday, the board deadlocked in a 2-2 decision on a vote that would give the city $14 million for work at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.

District 1 Supervisor Robert Graham made the motion in lieu of a proposal from Calhoun that would have allocated the money to build a water tower for the county’s new jail, which it plans to build in South Jackson.

“Supervisor Credell Calhoun voted against it. Supervisor Vern Gavin voted against it,” Graham said. “I have no reason, no explanation as to why supervisors in Hinds County would vote against their own citizens in improving drinking water. It’s unbelievable.”

The board did not vote on another motion that would have given the city $6 million in ARPA dollars to repair water lines in South Jackson.

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Graham said he made a motion to award $19 million to the city for the purpose of repairing O.B. Curtis.

Graham said the funding could have been doubled under the state’s current grant program, meaning that $19 million could have turned into nearly $40 million, which could have been used for water system improvements.

During the 2022 legislative session, the state established a matching grant program through the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, which would allow cities and counties to receive matching grants for any ARPA dollars used on qualifying infrastructure projects.

“You had two supervisors voting for the citizens of Jackson to help restore their water, water pressure, and water quality, which is most important,” he said. “And we had two supervisors that voted against this particular issue and one supervisor that was not present.”

During the meeting, Graham said there was no reason to build the water tower, and that “there was no reason to believe the department of health, which regulates water towers, would allow the building of the water tower and connecting it to the city of Jackson for any particular reason.”

“I have no idea where this came from. This is just a prime example... of political ineptitude,” he said, adding that Jackson had not requested the tower and that the new 48-inch main being installed by the city would negate the need for it.

Calhoun, the board chair, said Graham’s claims are “poppycock,” and that Graham and Calhoun previously voted to back the tower.

Minutes show that on April 4, of this year, the county brought on Pickering Engineering to survey a roughly 6-acre site to build a water tower. A motion to approve the contract was made by Archie and seconded by Calhoun, with Archie, Calhoun, Gavin, and Bobby McGowan voting in favor. Graham was absent or not voting.

A second vote to ratify a survey agreement with Pickering was on May 16, with all five supervisors voting in favor. However, the minutes do not indicate whether these actions were related to the proposed South Jackson tower.

As for the other $6 million, Calhoun said the county had met with city engineers, who said the money was needed to help repair and replace eight-inch water mains in South Jackson. “That’s what the city asked for. We agreed with the engineer, who came and showed us what they needed,” he said.

During a media briefing last week, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said that some of the city’s underground pipes could burst as a result of increased output from Curtis.

The city reported that pressure at the Curtis plant had reached 90 PSI, or pounds per square inch, on Sunday. Monday afternoon, the pressure was hovering around 83 PSI at the facility, according to an incident command brief filed by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

“I do want to forewarn you, another issue we may experience as they’re able to increase the pressure at the plant to levels that it has not seen in many years, the challenge then becomes whether we have pipes that rupture across the city,” the mayor said. “We have brittle pipes. We have aged pipes, just as our water treatment facilities are aged, and so that’s a challenge that we’re going to have to be... and dealing with as time persists.”

Curtis was constructed in the late 1980s or early 1990s. The plant was later expanded to include a membrane treatment side. The plant had been operating on backup pumps, which quit working around the time of the recent Pearl River flood. The pumps were backup devices that were too small for the plant and had been put in place after the main equipment failed.

Calhoun said as a result of the failure, all eyes are currently on Curtis, and that some areas could slip through the cracks. “You have to get the funds out to where the water is going... It’s in South Jackson, where we had the big problem earlier during the (February 2021) freeze,” he said. “They went four weeks without any water. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

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