Investigators: Winter storm costs MLGW millions, repairs still being made to equipment

Published: Apr. 15, 2021 at 10:37 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Doug Ivey’s water is running fine today but during the February winter storm his water barely ran at all.

He has lived in Shelby Forest with his wife for more than 30 years.

“We’ve never had any problem with water as long as I’ve lived out here. We’ve never had any water problems,” he told The WMC Action News 5 Investigators.

“Was this a big water problem?” Asked The Investigators.

“Well, yes!” Said Ivey. “We didn’t have a shower for a week except a sponge bath!”

Winter storms moved into Memphis on February 11 when temperatures dropped below freezing and kept falling, bringing ice and snow into the area for days.

MLGW customers began experiencing low water pressure and on February 16, the utility sent out an urgent alert asking customers to conserve water: no long showers, no laundry, no running water while washing dishes.

But the conservation efforts didn’t work and water pressure continued to drop.

Ivey and his neighbors in Shelby Forest had little to no water at all!

For those who did have water, MLGW issued a precautionary boil water advisory: the first in its 80-year history.

When water pressure is low, fewer than 20 pounds per square inch, harmful bacteria can grow so the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation requires precautionary boil water advisories.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a system failure since I’ve been here,” said Nick Newman, Vice President of Engineering and Operations for MLGW. “To me, having to put out a precautionary boil water advisory is a failure.”

One issue that caused the low water pressure is that dozens of pumping wells weren’t working. The wells remove water from the ground, and pump it into MLGW’s system. The water loop lines froze on the pumping wells during the winter storm.

Newman says the lines and wells are insulated; they even have an electric heating system attached to them. It still wasn’t enough to keep them warm enough to function.

MLGW is now in the process of replacing eight wells to the tune of $1.3 million each.

The company is also looking to find better insulation - an expensive endeavor that doesn’t yet have a price tag.

“Is it worth insulating those wells?” Asked The Investigators.

“We’re gonna be prepared for it whether it happens or not,” said Newman.

The other issue contributing to the low water pressure was the number of broken water mains.

157 mains broke during and right after the winter storm. The entire month of January saw 127 water main breaks.

Newman still considers the number a success.

“Going from 1 to 60 degrees in that short of period, and having that few of water main breaks, it actually performed pretty well,” he said.

Newman says most breaks came from sprinkler systems inside businesses - called fire protection lines.

Most of the business were located in Southwest Memphis that either had employees working from home or were vacant.

“There wasn’t even anyone in there to tell us that they were busted. We’d have to go out, buildings would be flooded, we’d have to find out who the owner is to shut their fire protections off,” he said.

So what was the total cost of the winter storm?

From February 11th to 26th, MLGW spent more than $2.8 million.

By comparison, the company spent $.196 million the entire month of February last year.

It wasn’t equipment or water mains that ate up most of the cost. $1.3 of the $2.8 million was spent on overtime and double-time for crews working.

“Do you think this will mean rate hikes for customers?” Asked The Investigators.

“No, I do not,” said Newman. “It sounds like a lot of money, and it is a lot of money, but it’s something that we expect to have to spend on main breaks and other water issues during the winter months.”

The Memphis City Council approved an MLGW rate increase last year, and most of that money is going to fix the company’s ailing infrastructure.

“We will also take what we learned from this storm and make sure that we make corrections,” said Newman.

Ivey and his friends hope that happens, too.

“It’s the first time, fortunately, that it ever happened to us and hopefully it’s the last time but who knows,” said Ivey.

MLGW says it continued to test the water for any contaminants during and after the storm and didn’t find any harmful bacteria.

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