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Under Pressure: Here's the Memphis Water Situation

Across Shelby County, eight primary pumping stations send water flowing into the sprawling network of water mains beneath our streets, which adds up to about 3,700 miles worth of civic plumbing. And that massive aquatic infrastructure was hit with a one-two punch this week, according to Memphis Light Gas & Water officials. 

First, pumping station wells (there are 140 of them) began freezing up, their machinery and electronics burning out due to the strain. They’re still being fixed, but it means reservoirs are low and less water is entering the system.

Then, water mains began rupturing from the cold. As of Friday afternoon, MLGW has made 60 repairs to these major arteries, with five more in progress. More breaks are expected, or have yet to be unearthed. To fix them, crews have to locate the problem, then reduce the water pressure in order to patch the leak with a sleeve. That is, unless the fracture runs lengthwise, which necessitates more extensive repairs.

In addition to the water main breaks, MLGW has serviced more than a thousand calls from panicked homeowners and businesses whose pipes have frozen or burst. Some of these pipes are the 8-inch feeders of fire suppression systems, which carry big loads of water. 

These site-specific emergency shut-offs, officials pledge, are the only instances of MLGW cutting water off to homeowners, even people behind on paying their bills.

“We are not planning to shut off residential water service,” said MLGW President and CEO JT Young repeatedly Friday, as rumors of more drastic measures trickled through social media.

For Nick Newman, that is cold comfort. He lives in the Shelby Forest area where some residents have been without water for two days. It’s not shut off; the water is just not getting there.

“The issue we’ve got with Shelby Forest is it’s a higher elevation,” he explained. “As water pressure gets reduced, you’re gonna have difficulty getting water pumped up higher elevation.”

Newman is also MLGW’s Vice President of Operations. He says this is the same reason other areas of Memphis have seen their faucets slow to a few drips. High-rise buildings — hotels, offices, hospitals, condos — may not see much water getting to the upper levels until the pressure returns, perhaps next week.

On Friday, MLGW began asking the city’s largest water-using industries or businesses to reduce consumption, excluding hospitals, prisons and the airport.

“In some cases with those large users, we will be restricting their water usage — turning some of them off — if we continue to have these pressure problems,” Young said.

But it gets tricky when one of the largest consumers of water in the region -- if not the largest -- is also keeping our lights on.

TVA’s natural-gas powered Allen Combined Cycle Plant uses an average of 3.5 million gallons of water per day, provided by MLGW, to produce the steam that runs the turbines.

“They have been cooperating in reducing water consumption at that plant, balancing what they need to do to keep the generation going,” said Young.

During one of the coldest weeks of the year, the plant has cut energy output by 33 percent to help restore water pressure, as TVA diverts energy from other sources to make up for the cuts.

The reduction in water pressure also has led to an unusual advisory to boil drinking water. While officials say there's no evidence of contamination, the directive is a precaution that takes effect when pressure drops too low.

“The good news is that we don’t have a situation where a contamination has occurred and a boiled water notice is in response to that,” said Deputy Health Department Director David Sweat. “This is a preventative, proactive effort to just acknowledge that with lower water pressures there is an increased risk for pathogens to enter into the water supply. It’s not because any pathogens have entered the water supply that anyone is aware of.”

The news was not so uplifting, however, for local restaurants and preparers of food, which have been ordered to shut down this weekend by the health department if water can’t be boiled before being served to customers. Ice machines plumbed to city water also cannot be used.

Though temperatures are expected to rise above freezing on Saturday and Sunday, at least during the day, officials say residents may be dealing with water problems well into next week. Pipes that are now frozen solid will thaw, revealing cracks and leaks.

As homeowners begin to discover the damage done on their own properties, MLGW continues to assess the damage already done to theirs. Up to 40 out of the 140 wells are now under repair.  

"Our infrastructure does need considerable vital work," said Newman. "It's definitely a factor in why we're having all these problems."


Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher has covered Memphis news, arts, culture and politics for more than 20 years in print and on the radio. He is currently WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.