‘All this takes time’: Third-party manager tells judge Jackson water won’t improve overnight
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A Dallas-based engineering firm is expected to take over operations at Jackson’s water treatment plants next month, says the city’s recently appointed water manager.
Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin gave an update on his efforts to improve the city’s water system at a status conference on Thursday.
U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate called the meeting in response to the Christmas water crisis, which left tens of thousands of people without water, in some cases for two weeks.
Wingate appointed Henifin as ITPM as part of an interim stipulated order taking over the city’s water system in late November.
“On the date I signed it, which resulted in the appointment of our manager, I was under the impression that Jackson water was on the mend and improving,” he said. “As I understand now, thousands of citizens were without water over Christmas and New Year’s, which was a surprise to me.”
Wingate said he wanted to hear from the parties involved to determine whether his order needed to be changed.
“If the dictates of the interim stipulated order do not meet our aims, we need to move forward with resolving [the] lawsuit,” he said.
Officials from the EPA, U.S. Department of Justice, city of Jackson and other agencies were at the hearing.
Henifin told the judge that the Christmas crisis was the result of years of neglect, and that there was no quick fix to address Jackson’s longstanding water issues.
“I don’t know if you can do anything different and succeed,” he said. “Unfortunately, all this takes time and we’re in this tenuous situation.”
Wingate approved an interim stipulated order putting Jackson’s water system under federal control on November 29.
The order, according to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, is designed to stabilize the city’s water system while the city, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice “attempt to negotiate a judicially enforceable consent decree to achieve long-term sustainability.”
It includes a list of priority projects the third-party manager must implement, including hiring a vendor to operate and maintain the city’s water system, including the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. Curtis, Jackson’s main treatment facility, has been the epicenter of three major water crises in the last two years.
Henifin says that priority should be achieved by February, once Jacobs officially takes over water system operations and maintenance.
He told the judge that Jacobs has been working with the city since November and will continue to operate as is, until it gathers enough information to draw up a long-term contract.
In the meantime, he said the company has already started advertising for positions on its website, including those of water operator, lead water operator, lead lab analyst and operator-in-training.
“They’re currently working on what their staffing plan needs to be,” Henifin added. “I’m just working to make sure I have plant coverage to keep it running.”
Staffing has been a problem at Jackson’s treatment plants for years. A 3 On Your Side investigation last summer revealed personnel shortages were so bad in late 2021 that they threatened to shut down at least one plant. Plant operators, meanwhile, were putting in hundreds of hours of overtime to ensure the city continued to have coverage, as mandated under state statute.
“On August 30, we had only one maintenance [worker] at Curtis, and no maintenance was being done,” he said. “It was an extremely tenuous situation from a maintenance standpoint.”
August 30 was the start of the August/September crisis, which prompted the state and federal government to issue emergency declarations in response.
During the emergency, Henifin said support poured into the city to help restore and stabilize operations at the Curtis plant, and to supplement overworked staff.
However, much of that support left after the governor’s emergency ended on November 22, a week before Wingate signed the stipulated order.
“They were leaving, and we had no maintenance workers, no way to order materials, except through the city’s non-emergency methods,” Henifin said.
Henifin, a 40-year public works veteran from Virginia, was introduced to Jackson during the crisis, as an “executive on loan” brought in by the U.S. Water Alliance. He was instrumental in helping the city secure a temporary staffing contract for the plants before the state pulled out.
Staffing aside, Henifin also told the judge about other challenges facing the city’s system. Among them, Jackson has to cut production at the plant by a third every 10 days to clean out sedimentation basins.
He said that process is automated at most plants, but the automated systems at Curtis have not been functional for years. Once capacity is reduced, the city is at risk of losing pressure, because a large number of leaks in the distribution system requires water to be pumped into it at all times.
“I’m not sure any other [water system] in the country is in that challenging of a situation,” he said.
Henifin says a private contractor is expected to wrap up work on a hydraulic model later this month. A company offered to draw up the model pro-bono back in September.
He told Wingate that he’s hired an engineering firm to assess the model to help get a handle on water losses. “Without that, we’ll have a hard time figuring out how the system operates. We can’t make good decisions about the system without the model,” he said.
Henifin also informed the judge that engineers have been hired to do an assessment of the city’s valve system, and to evaluate whether South Jackson can be switched to the well system to improve service.
South Jackson is typically one of the hardest-hit areas during water crises, in part, due to its distance from the treatment plants. Henifin says he’s spoken to one resident in Forest Hill who he believes is the first to lose water during a crisis, and one of the last to have water restored.
Henifin also discussed plans on how hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding would be spent to address the city’s water needs, including the $600 million included in the recent omnibus spending bill, and another $100 million authorized for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
He said the $100 million will go toward replacing water lines in an effort to help cut down on water system leaks. He was hopeful that work will get underway this summer.
As for the remaining funds, he said a schedule of when the funds would be expended would be submitted to Wingate by the end of the month.
Wingate said he was encouraged by Henifin’s report. “This report is really encouraging,” he said. “I just hope our citizenry will understand the problems we have.”
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