Jones continued emphasizing the long-term aspect of his planning, saying he preferred to get problems out into the open so they could be discussed and not jump on them when something inevitably breaks and requires fixing.
“The cost just gets out of control. When you have something quick, last minute, without being able to think it through and decide this is the strategy for handling this, it doesn’t help anything,” he said. “I like to take the approach of let’s acknowledge the problem, let’s quantify the problem and then let’s come up with a reasoned approach for dealing with it that everybody can understand. That’s going to get us the best solution.”
The problems stem from 20 to 30 years of funding going toward expansion and increasing capacity rather than maintenance, Jones said. Some water lines are nearing the end of their operational lifespans while equipment at the water plant is showing signs of aging as well through leaks, cracks and some crumbling concrete. It is a list of problems compiled over years.
“The list we’ve got, the highlights of it if you will, is a list that Jim Stafford, the outgoing director, had developed himself. It’s one that internally we’ve been talking about for years. ... In prior, really decades if you want to think of it that way, the city was growing,” Jones said. “We had new subdivisions coming in, new industry coming in and the lion’s share of funding went into capacity expansion. We’ve done planned improvements, both water and wastewater, in regular intervals. But those dollars went into making the plants treat more water — produce more water or better quality water — they didn’t address repairing existing infrastructure, if you will.
“So if you back up 10 or 20 years, really since, say, the 1990s, that’s where most of the funding in the department has gone to, into pipes that go further or bigger pipes than we had or plants that make more or are ... rated to treat more water. Since that time that stuff that was initially built like we saw in the ’72 structures, the ’74 structures, it just hasn’t had any maintenance done to it and, probably in the ’90s, didn’t need any maintenance done to it, but between now and then it has started to go the other way and is in need of some repair.”
Among the items at the plant needing repairs are the sedimentation basins and the clearwells. The sedimentation basins hold water and slow it down so it becomes still, which allows particles in the water to settle to the bottom of the bin before the water hits a filter. The clearwells, Jones said, hold purified water, allow the chlorine time to clean the water and provide a source for the pumps to fill the water mains. Made of concrete, both the sedimentation basins and clearwells are displaying cracks, crumbles and leaks. Both the basins and the clearwells are integral to water operation.
The fix, Jones said, comes down to a lining.
“There’s several manufacturers of coatings that are specifically intended for the water industry, and those coatings, if applied inside of this structure — it functions like a swimming pool liner. It’s not a bag, so to speak, that sits inside there. It’s actually painted on and adheres to the walls. A sealer or a liner that goes inside of the tank. The theory there is you get this stuff on, it seals up all the cracks and you kill two birds with one stone. You’re no longer losing water out the cracks and then the water’s no longer penetrating the concrete where it can corrode the rebar, the steel in the concrete, which ultimately leads to a structural problem at some point down the road. ... If that is successful then the clearwell will be good, to the best of our knowledge. We don’t think it’s been compromised structurally. Yes, it’s got cracks in it, but you can have a crack in concrete and still be structurally sound,” he said.
The sedimentation basins would require a different type of sealant, Jones added, but it would function in essentially the same way. After using a high-pressure water jet to remove loose, bad concrete from the basins, a crew would lay the sealant on good concrete and prevent any further leaks. The material used in the basins, Jones said, is similar to what the department is now using to rehabilitate the basin filters.
However, Jones said he does not have a guarantee for how long the sealants would last. He believed 10 years would be a “best case” before a leak appears. At that point, he said, the department would revisit the issue and see if resealing or another option would be best.
Another storage component is also on the list: tanks. Tanks are scattered across the department’s facility and Environmental Protection Division regulations are going to require secondary containment procedures for each one. Essentially, Jones said, it comes down to building a wall that will hold any material that may leak out of the tank. In addition, he added, the tanks themselves are original to the water treatment facility and their capacity is smaller than the plant now requires, creating a material constraint in treating water. Consolidating new tanks into one area would solve both the containment issue and the capacity problem, he said.
As for the city’s pipes and water mains, they are getting old. Recent projects on Tennessee Street and Etowah Drive have confirmed the department’s concerns about the aging lines.
“With the pipes, what you’ve got is — truthfully the Tennessee Street project, the Etowah Drive project have been pipe replacement projects that have gone through the heart of some of the oldest pipe we have in the system, and in the process of doing those projects we’ve cut into those pipes. We’ve been able to see them, whereas before we were just going, ‘Wow, that’s a really old pipe, it’s got to be in bad shape.’ Where we’ve tied the new lines into the existing stuff, we’ve been cutting into those lines and we’re actually able to see the inside of the pipe and it has confirmed our suspicion that hey, that pipe is reaching the end of its useful lifetime, we’re going to have to do something with it sooner or later,” Jones said.
Paying for the repairs and maintenance, though it will be over an extended time, presents its own set of challenges. City Manager Sam Grove said the water department has essentially lost $20 million over the past five years as a bad economic environment, drought and legislated water conservation have reduced water use.
“So when you turn around and say, ‘What has happened here?’ That’s what’s happened. We’re $20 million short that we used to get from operations and we no longer do because consumption has dropped. So we’re going to have to figure out a way — I don’t know if we can fully replace that. We’re going to have to figure out a way to fix the things that we have not been able to fix over the last five years,” he said. “Hopefully growth will come back and help some of that. I think there are signs on the horizon with some of the economic things that are happening, and certainly with what’s happening in Emerson, I think there are some signs. Whether it happens quick enough is really the question.”
Sales tax, Grove continued, is not showing a steady trend, making it difficult for the city to predict what revenues it can expect. Water revenues, though, may not reach pre-recession levels.
“Long range we’re going to have to see what the water revenue does and we’ll have to see what sales taxes do because those are both impacting our budget. Now there’s indication of late that maybe sales tax is turning around. I don’t think that two months makes a trend, so from that piece that may be good news. The water, on the other side, is impacted by the hard economic times we’ve been through and by water restrictions and the state conservation measures. Then the fact that business has used both of those to cut their costs and become more efficient with water use. ... We may have to shift away from those. We may have to do things differently. What those are at this point, I don’t know,” he said.
Jones emphasized the water department was still producing clean, safe water and would continue to do so. Any repairs at the facility would not affect customers receiving water, while installing new lines would shut water off for only a few hours, he said. Bringing up the repair list and its associated price tag was to start the discussion, he believed.
“I want to be careful, and I’ve tried to stress to the council and everyone else, the objective here is to just shine a light in the corner and let everybody know what’s going on,” Jones said. “It’s not to incite panic or make anyone think the sky is falling or anything like that. That’s just simply not the case. But these are big-ticket items. They’re issues that we hadn’t necessarily dealt with in the past and it’s going to require some different thinking and some long-range planning that I’m a fan of getting started early on.”