Water contamination rare, Rainer says

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 26, 2002

[11/26/02]In his 25 years with the city, engineer and public works director James “Bubba” Rainer says he has never seen Vicksburg’s water system contaminated from a burst pipe or loss of pressure.

Still, however, the public must be alerted to the possibility when the water could make them sick.

Rainer, head of the city’s public works division, answered questions from the mayor and aldermen Monday after a power outage at the city water treatment plant caused a citywide boil-water notice that lasted four days. Pressure was lost throughout most of the city for about an hour Thursday and residents were told to boil water they planned to drink through Sunday.

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“We’ve never had a contamination in the system where we’ve had to flush the lines or cause people to get sick,” Rainer said.

Boil-water notices issued for the Fisher Ferry Water District and the Yokena-Jeff Davis Water District, which buy water from the municipal system, were also lifted.

State law requires the boil-water notices to be issued because bacteria can grow in air pockets formed in unpressurized pipes. If lines are broken, impurities may also be drawn into the system.

Any serious illness is highly unlikely, but discomfort akin to food poisoning is the risk from drinking water containing certain types of live bacteria. Boiling kills the microscopic organisms.

The water system failed during routine maintenance of an electrical sub-station at the plant on the Vicksburg Harbor, and a backup generator did not start. That allowed water levels in elevated tanks to drop. The generator is tested once a week and had worked three days earlier, Rainer said. Even if it had fired up, it couldn’t keep the whole system, serving 10,000 addresses, going.

“The generator will just buy us a little more time, about two hours,” Rainer said. “It will not power the entire plant.”

While city officials have considered it, the cost of a backup generator for the entire plant is estimated at more than $1 million.

Rainer said he has only seen two significant power outages at the plant since he has been with the city.

“It’s hard to justify spending that much money if you’ve only had a handful of incidents,” said Mayor Laurence Leyens.

The bigger question before the city administration is how to notify the public when a boil-water notice is issued, Leyens said. A break in a water main line at Clay and Hope streets two weeks ago prompted complaints from area residents who said they were never notified to boil water.

State health officials require two samples to be taken 24 hours apart after a break or loss of pressure and require that notice be given to one local media outlet. Notice was posted on the city’s cable channel, TV 23, after the break at Clay and Hope, but not all residents receive the channel.

Leyens said the city is developing a new protocol for notifying the media, including radio stations and newspapers, in the event of a boil-water notice, but those warnings could be more frequent than most people realize.

“It’s pretty routine,” Rainer said. “We usually have to do it once a week, but it’s usually not that large of an area.”

Line breaks are common, especially in older parts of town. Some of the lines in the 180 miles of pipes in the city are more than 100 years old.

Rainer and others credited the backflow prevention policy mandated by the city in 1999 following federal regulations with preventing contamination in the system. The devices, which are required at most businesses, prevent water from being siphoned back into the water lines through an open valve, such as a garden hose, when pressure is lost.v