Memphis lawmakers: Bolster water lines to avoid crisis

Store shelves are empty of milk and water at Kroger Trinity Commons in Cordova, Tennessee. Memphis Light Gas and Water has issued a first ever boil order alert due to low water pressure problems related to the recent winter storms that have passed through the area. (© Karen Pulfer Focht)
Store shelves are empty of milk and water at Kroger Trinity Commons in Cordova, Tennessee. Memphis Light Gas and Water has issued a first ever boil order alert due to low water pressure problems related to the recent winter storms that have passed through the area. (© Karen Pulfer Focht)

Shelby County legislators say upgrading the Memphis water infrastructure is critical to avert another boil-water advisory the next time the city is hit with a winter storm.

Memphis Light, Gas and Water put the advisory into effect last week when water lines across the city sprang leaks, causing water pressure to dwindle and raising concerns about potential contamination. The boil-water advisory could be lifted soon if the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation finds samples are clear of contaminants.

But for many people, the damage is already done. Residents across the city needed water at a critical time when they were stuck inside their homes because of the blanket of snow and ice that covered Memphis.

A Memphis resident boils water on Friday Feb.19, 2021. Memphis Light Gas and Water has issued a first ever boil order alert due to low water pressure problems related to the recent winter storms that have passed through Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)
A Memphis resident boils water on Friday Feb.19, 2021. Memphis Light Gas and Water has issued a first ever boil order alert due to low water pressure problems related to the recent winter storms that have passed through Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

MLGW has spent about $3.5 million repairing nearly 100 of 110 busted water main pipes, which have caused the city to lose about 25 million gallons daily, according to reports.

Memphis City Council and MLGW have been at odds for years over the need for water line maintenance, which apparently led to the breakdowns.

“This is one thing government needs to be more responsible for. We need to maintain our infrastructure along the way, instead of waiting until an event happens and forces us to do something,” said state Rep. Mark White, an East Memphis Republican.

He encouraged city leaders and the utility to “move post-haste” on building up the water system’s infrastructure, even if it costs tens of millions of dollars.

“You either spend it now or you spend it later, usually twice as much, and so we need to put in place a policy where we maintain it along the way,” White said.

Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Democratic Rep. Dwayne Thompson called the water situation a “total surprise” but also noted the water-boil advisory stemmed from a failure to repair and maintain old pipes. The system dates back some 90 years.

“As a result when we have a weather event like we had last week, a lot of pipes just couldn’t handle it,” he said. 

Water pipe maintenance isn’t an “exciting” topic, but it affects families across the city, Thompson pointed out.

State Rep. Jesse Chism, a Memphis Democrat, called this a good opportunity to double-check for any contaminants that could be in the water.

Memphians take pride in their water, which comes from the Memphis Sands Aquifer and is considered some of the purest in the nation. Yet the advisory raised concerns for Chism.

“By the fact we had to do a boil-water, it makes you wonder about how fragile our water system is,” Chism said.

Rep. Jesse Chism, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

State Rep. London Lamar said she is encouraging “collaborative efforts” between Memphis and MLGW leaders to solve the problem to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“What this is is a call to action that we must invest in our infrastructure,” said Lamar, a Memphis Democrat.

She contended this crisis period is not a time to point fingers but rather an opportunity to “get it right and get it better.”

Lawmakers largely said they are satisfied with the response of city leaders and MLGW. Several legislators gave out water from their district offices to residents who needed it during the storm.

“There are a lot of people that are scared and concerned,” said state Rep. Antonio Parkinson. The problem “hit home” with him, he said, when an elderly couple contacted his office asking for water.

The Memphis Democrat noted the “infrastructure issue” between the city of Memphis and Memphis Light, Gas and Water goes back years. While city and utility leaders work to repair and bolster the system, Parkinson said he plans to contact the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency to see if it can provide resources to Memphis and Shelby County.

Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation recently announced a $15 million loan to the city of Memphis to correct infiltration and inflow within the wastewater collection system. It has a 20-year term at .61% interest through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Loan Program.