MLGW works to upgrade old equipment and prevent future problems

Published: Dec. 29, 2022 at 11:20 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - MLGW ended the Boil Water Advisory on Thursday. The utility said service had been restored to all 258,000 customers who aren’t still dealing with broken pipes inside their homes.

A utility spokesperson said crews repaired a total of 50 broken water mains, far more than they had to deal with during the cold snap last year.  The boil water advisory was in place for six days.

The focus now is on the future and modernizing the utility’s aging infrastructure to prevent another water crisis after back-to-back struggles during subzero weather in 2021 and 2022.

There are 10 pumping stations in the MLGW network, and some are now a century old.

These are the facilities where pristine water is pulled from the aquifer 500 to 1,000 feet below the surface, filtered, treated, stored in a reservoir and then sent out to homes and businesses through the distribution system (the 300 miles of pipes beneath Memphis and Shelby County.) Pumping stations also backwash water, cleaning it before it’s sent to the sewer system.

Tens of millions of dollars are being spent right now to upgrade the old equipment at the pumping stations.

In August, the MLGW water division managers gave Action News 5 a tour of the Sheahan Pumping station in East Memphis to explain how your tax dollars are being invested to make sure Memphis’ water service is safe and reliable.

MLGW Vice President of Engineering and Operations Nick Newman and Water Operations Manager Quinton Clark explained the upgrades being made to Tennessee’s largest water company.

The biggest change since the February 2021 freeze that crippled the system made a difference in how MLGW’s production side survived the frigid temperatures. ”We’ve got 8 new wells in service since then,” said Newman, “and we replaced some older wells that were either not working or not producing very well.”

Each well, said Newman, cost $1.4 million to replace.

That’s not the only new investment.

“We have the five-year plan that we implemented in 2019,” Newman continued, “where we have about $121 million on the waterside that we’re spending. This year’s around $12 million we’re going to be spending.”

The ceiling in the filtration building at the Sheahan plant, built in 1932, was being repaired during our visit. The instrumentation equipment for each filter bay has been modernized. New chemical storage tanks have been installed, along with new backwash pumps that create less wastewater.

The state sent Memphis $99 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. Newman said MLGW will use $38 million on new technology.

Sheahan, originally powered by coal and steam, now runs on electricity, and MLGW has generators and backup systems in place for emergencies.

Unlike 2021, none of the utility’s 100+ wells froze or failed in this latest weather event. “We actually have different circuits coming from different substations,” said Clark, “so we can switch over to a substation that has power to keep the plant running, as well.”

The Mallory Plant on North Parkway, the oldest in the network, built 100 years ago, is getting upgrades this year, too.

Back at the Sheahan Plant, critical digital equipment is now maintained in air-conditioned rooms.

“These are some of the things we’re trying to do to improve our pumping stations,” said Clark Newman said an engineering consulting firm. He is helping MLGW determine more necessary improvements, including a way to figure out how the utility can be notified when fire suppression systems are compromised during cold weather. 

More than 40 sprinkler systems, some with 10-inch pipes, burst inside commercial businesses during this recent severe weather event. Newman and newly installed MLGW President and CEO Doug McGowen said the water lost to these business breaks make repairing the leaks and restoring water pressure for all customers much more difficult.

“We need to find a way to know when fire suppression systems are blowing inside of buildings,” said Newman, “so that way we can react quickly to shut those lines down faster to stop the bleeding, as we call it.”

“Despite its’ age and difficulties, MLGW’s water service... is still the envy of others.,” said Newman, ”You can ask any water professional that knows Memphis’ system and knows how lucky we are to be where we are...and the great job our guys do to keep this system running.”

Local and state leaders are now talking about finding ways to get more money for MLGW to make more improvements more quickly.

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