‘Here to stay’: Jacobs begins operations at Jackson’s water treatment plants

Jackson's third-party water manager says a private contractor has officially taken over...
Jackson's third-party water manager says a private contractor has officially taken over operations of Jackson's two water treatment plants.(WLBT)
Published: Feb. 24, 2023 at 3:40 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - After numerous water crises in recent years, many of which were caused in part by a lack of staffing at Jackson’s water treatment plants, the city’s water manager says the facilities are now well on their way to being fully staffed.

That was a major takeaway from a Friday morning press conference announcing Jacobs Solutions had taken over operations of the city’s O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plants.

The facilities, Curtis in particular, have been ground zero for numerous issues that cut water service for tens of thousands of Jackson and Byram residents in recent years.

Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin says the city’s plants now have a “full compliment of Class A operators,” something that brings the city into compliance with federal and state law, and removes a major factor contributing to the numerous interruptions in services that have left customers in the city scrambling for water not only to drink, but to flush their toilets.

“They now have a full complement of Class A operators, so we’re not having to work people to death to make sure we have folks there,” he said. “So, we’re in great shape from a compliance standpoint.”

Jacobs officially began Monday. The company is currently operating under a six-month contract and will likely enter into a longer-term agreement later this year.

“They are operator of record for our treatment plants right now,” he said. “They’re going to make a mark on this community and it’s wonderful to have them as a partner.”

Mia Welch, vice president of client accounts for Mississippi, says Jacobs is proud to be in Jackson.

“We are water professionals and we have brought some dedicated subject matter experts in to help establish the tools, systems and staffing procedures to have a really long-term operation here for Jackson,” she said. “We operate more than 250 water and wastewater systems across the country of all different sizes, from small to large, and we are excited to bring [those] same high-quality water operations practices to Jackson.”

Mia Welch, with Jacobs Solutions, speaks at a press conference announcing a new contract and...
Mia Welch, with Jacobs Solutions, speaks at a press conference announcing a new contract and scholarship program in Jackson.(WLBT)

Jacobs was awarded a six-month agreement initially to give the company and JXN Water time to learn exactly how much it will cost and how many people are needed to run, staff and maintain the treatment facilities.

“We will have open-book access to their financials to see what those costs are, and we both will be able to plan better for a fixed-price contract that we anticipate entering for a five to 10-year period at the end of September,” he said. “So, Jacobs is here to stay.”

The contract comes about three months after Henifin took over as water manager as part of a federal court order and about six months after emails uncovered by WLBT showed staffing shortages at the plants were so severe they threatened to shut down operations.

Henifin estimates operations will run about $2 million a month.

For the first three years, he plans to cover those costs with federal funds.

Washington has allocated approximately $800 million for water and sewer work in Jackson, including $150 million under Section 1442(b) of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“I hate using the 1442(b) concept because it sounds very lingo-ish. But that’s a grant [where] the EPA has much more discretion,” he said. “In that program, we’re asking for $25 million a year for the first three years, until we can get the revenue stabilized and that will go toward this contract.”

“We’re hoping it’s less than $2 million a month, but that’s the high end that Jacobs has estimated based on their knowledge of our system at the moment.”

The contract will include staffing, running and maintaining the J.H. Fewell and O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plants.

Fewell, which was constructed in 1914 and last upgraded in 1944, has been described as an “operating museum.”

During the August/September water crisis, people coming in to help restore operations visited Fewell just to see its historic equipment.

Curtis, meanwhile, was the epicenter of the August/September crisis and others, including the most recent Christmas crisis, which left many customers with dry taps at Christmas and New Year’s.

According to Henifin, the plant was left with a skeleton crew after many workers were sent home for the holidays. That small crew was unable to react quickly enough to a sudden drop in water temperatures at the Barnett Reservoir.

As a result, production was cut and the city’s water storage tanks were drained.

Staffing shortages have been a problem in Jackson for years. Emails obtained by WLBT last summer show that the shortages were so severe in November 2021 that they threatened to shut down one of the city’s plants.

Henifin says the problem wasn’t much better when he arrived in the city last year during the water crisis.

“When I arrived in September for my loan executive program as part of the U.S. Water Alliance, I believe, at the time, they had at Curtis roughly 10 people and at Fewell about 12,” Henifin said. “So we had about 22 folks running the water plants.”

“I don’t know the reason why there were so few positions filled, but... we were seriously understaffed and [we] had been for some time.”

State and federal statutes require at least one Class A operator to be on duty at each of the city’s surface water treatment plants 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Documents obtained by WLBT showed operators were logging hundreds of hours of overtime to ensure the city remained in compliance.

Henifin says workers will no longer face such long hours, with Jacobs expected to fill 52 positions as part of their initial agreement.

“On top of that... they’ve got 10 additional positions... that are highly skilled, technical specialty maintenance folks that will be here to help get the plants really smooth running,” he said.

In the meantime, Jacobs has hired the majority of city employees working at the plants prior to their takeover and is currently advertising for other positions online.

“They’ve had a tremendous response to their advertisement for local talent in a variety of areas, including licensed operators that may have had a history of working for Jackson years ago and left for whatever reason to pursue something else,” he said. “So, they’re finding great local talent, not just in Jackson, but [from] surrounding communities and I think they’re getting responses from folks across the country.”

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