Corps identifies $140M in long-term needs for Curtis, Fewell plants

This is an aerial view of of the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Plant in Ridgeland, Miss.,...
This is an aerial view of of the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Plant in Ridgeland, Miss., Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022.(Steve Helber | AP)
Published: Nov. 23, 2022 at 2:28 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - An estimated $140 million could be needed to shore up problems at the city of Jackson’s two surface water treatment facilities, according to a recent assessment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

WLBT recently obtained a copy of the “Resiliency Playbook” drawn up by the corps to outline deficiencies and make recommendations for repairs at the O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plants.

Officials made the recommendations based on data compiled during Jackson’s water crisis, to give the city a roadmap to ensure that the plants can continue to provide safe drinking water to residents.

In all, 73 projects were recommended. Combined, those projects carry an estimated price tag of between $93.3 million and $139.9 million.

“It does not prioritize certain projects, and so we’re still working in conjunction with other experts in order to prioritize things that are listed within [it],” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said at an October 31 press conference. “We are certainly grateful for [the corps’] work and effort.”

The corps says projects outlined in the playbook are just a “snapshot” of needs and that “a more comprehensive study is required to determine the scope necessary to fully restore the plants to supply a maximum capacity of 70 million gallons a day.”

Exactly how the playbook will be used is unknown, especially as the city braces for an independent third party to take control of water operations as part of a stipulated order with the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice.

In addition to various projects, the report highlighted a number of deficiencies at the city’s treatment facilities, including the lack of staffing, as well as a lack of inventory or a lack of access to replacement parts for critical components.

Adding to that problem is the age of plant equipment, making it harder to find parts. “Abandoned equipment/systems were observed, electrical equipment is more than 30 years old and spare parts are difficult to locate,” the corps states. The corps also stated that some equipment in place had been improperly installed, being mounted on wooden pallets.

The agency recommends having a plant manager or mechanic on call as a result.

[Exclusive: Emails reveal staffing shortage threatened to shut down water treatment plants]

“One of the major issues causing failure within the water treatment plant is the lack of maintenance,” the report states. “Perhaps, several of the outstanding infrastructure issues could have been prevented if the components were properly maintained.”

In late August, equipment failures at the Curtis plant left tens of thousands of people in Jackson and Hinds County without water, prompting the state to take over the city’s water system.

Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency on August 30, allowing the state to step in. A federal declaration was declared later.

As part of the response, the corps was brought on to assess plant needs. Recommendations are based on inspections of both facilities, as well as discussions with experts and reviews of historical documents. As part of the assessment, the corps looked at everything from the condition of the water plants and water distribution system, as well as plant operations themselves.

Findings show that in the last year, Curtis had more than three outages, all of which lasted longer than 12 hours. The corps also dinged the city for failing to provide adequate security and cybersecurity for both plants, and for failing to have a backup water supply.

Curtis receives its water from the Barnett Reservoir, which is fed by the Pearl River, while Fewell receives water from the Pearl directly.

“Although water scarcity is historically not an issue in this geographical area, the plant still should generate plans for discrepancies between water needs and available water supply,” the report states.

Meanwhile, the corps found that as much as 50 percent of the water produced by Curtis and Fewell is lost due to breaks in the distribution system, meaning the plants must operate at maximum capacity 24 hours a day, seven days a week to meet demand.

“This adds unnecessary stress and fatigue to the two already fragile plants,” the corps writes. “To truly improve the resiliency and operations of O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell... the deficiencies in the distribution system need to be addressed.”

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