City leaders battle with sewer lines, drains, water plant

Published 7:01 pm Saturday, March 26, 2016

Vicksburg has 230 miles of sanitary sewer lines, about 60 miles of storm drains and 189 miles of streets.

Most of that is 100 years or older and showing its age.

“People would be amazed at what’s under their feet,” North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield said.

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Two of the city’s three main sewer lines — the Riverside interceptor and the Stouts Bayou are 108 years old, installed in 1908.

The Levee Street main, which carries sewage to the city’s sewer treatment plant on Rifle Range Road, was installed in 1973. And all three use a variety of pipes to move sewage through their systems.

The city is also under an Environmental Protection Agency consent decree to improve the system.

“We have all different kinds of pipe (in the ground) — concrete, clay, plastic, ductile iron,” Public Works Director Garnet Van Norman said. “We have some storm drains that are actually older (than the sewer lines).”

Most of the city’s storm drain system, he said, were built after the Civil War using a brick arch system, and like some of the sewer and water lines, are buried more than 30 feet below ground.

“They’re deep because probably back when a street was installed, it was just a small bridge going over the drainage way, and it just leveled up over time,” Van Norman said. “Vicksburg is nothing but hills and hollows so a lot of it’s deep.”

He said a set of utility lines by Walmart at the intersection of U.S. 61 South and Iowa Avenue is 40 to 50 deep.

“We had to make a repair on it several years ago,” he said.

And when city officials discover utility lines below 9 feet, they have to call in a contractor.

“We have the equipment to work down to 9 feet, but nothing that allows us to work deeper,” Sewer Department superintendent Willie McCroy said. “Right now, we’ve been lucky; we haven’t had an major problems with the sewer system recently. When we have a problem, we either patch or replace.”

Van Norman said the city’s ancient storm drain system is repaired in places.

“It’s really better to repair and not to replace, because if you think of replacing the ones that you have under Clay Street, you would have to close Clay Street.

“We had a storm sewer under Clay Street and it was in pretty bad shape and about 30 feet down. We put a lining through it.”

And when crews begin working on utility lines, they can run into a maze of pipes crossing over an under the line with the problem.

Mayfield recalled a recent city project to install taps on Washington Street for waterlines for some new downtown apartments.

“We had to move gas, water and some sewer lines, so you never know what you’re going to unearth,” he said. “You have no way of knowing.”

Above ground, Vicksburg’s streets are a mix of paved and brick thoroughfares, some of which harken back to the days when the horse and buggy, instead of the automobile, traveled city streets.

“The pavement gets old and brittle and begins to crack, water gets into them and then we start getting sinkholes and potholes and we have to go in and dig ‘em out and patch them,” said Street Department Supervisor Skipper Whittington. “All we can do it patch them until they can be resurfaced.”

The city has two types of brick streets, the pavers used on Washington Street downtown and a special brick called “hillside brick,” which is on several streets like South and Grove streets, that are reminders of the city’s earlier years.

“It has a notch in it, so when the horses and mules went up and down on it, the shoes would be able to grip the brick,” Van Norman said. “It’s too expensive to keep up the brick streets we have. Some of them have been overlaid. When you go back in and start milling them off (to resurface), people see the brick streets and get upset.”

There is another reason.

“You can’t get that old brick anymore,” Whittington said. “When we have to remove the bricks, we replace them.” That’s not the case with Washington Street. The pavers there are available. The bricks there, he said, are laid on sand spread over a concrete base.


Wastewater treatment plant

More recently, the city has faced another infrastructure problem that doesn’t involve pipes or streets.

Vicksburg’s 47-year-old water treatment plant and its 43-year-old wastewater treatment plant are also beginning to feel their ages.

The water treatment plant on Haining Road has had to shut down three times in three years because of power failures. A blown fuse and faulty generator shut the plant down in November. A short in the plant’s elevator caused a shutdown in August. A third power outage shut off the plant in 2013.

“The electrical system at the water plant is 1960s technology,” Van Norman said. “It’s old and we’ve had an engineering company assess the problems. We’re just going to have to address the problems in the future, and the most expensive and pressing one is going to be the electrical.”

Part of the problem, he said, goes back several years when the plant used chlorine gas to chlorinate the water.

“There’s been an event or two where the gas leaked into the electrical system,” he said. “Chlorine is very corrosive, and we’ve had some problems with the electrical because of that, but the main reason is it’s just old. We just repair it when we have problems now. The best case would be to replace it with a state of the art system. And that will eventually happen. It has to happen.”

The wastewater treatment plant’s problem hit in February, when one of its two primary clarifiers popped out of the ground while its equipment was being replaced.

“We don’t know what caused it,” Van Norman said. “It could be one of several things. Once you take the water out of the clarifier, it becomes like a boat.” He said work has been completed to repair and plug broken lines damaged when the clarifier lifted from the ground, and CDM Smith, a Jackson engineering firm that specializes in environmental issues, is examining the situation to determine a solution.

“I’m afraid they’re going to tell us to rip it out and build a new one,” Van Norman said.

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said the estimate to fully replace the clarifier could run as high as $5 million.



Despite the age of the city’s infrastructure, Flaggs said, “We’re fortunate we don’t have some of the problem our neighbor cities are dealing with. The piping is not as bad as I thought it would be, and I attribute that to mild winters. We’ve been blessed with that.”

And, he added, plans have been developed to meet some of the city’s other problems.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen in early 2015 approved an $18 million capital improvements bond issue that was split in two parts. The first portion, totaling $9.2 million, was approved in August and included $2 million — $1 million per ward — for paving. An additional $2.3 million will be available when the city approves the remaining $8.8 million in bonds in 2017.

The board also hired Applied Research Associates Inc. of Champaign, Ill., to do a street survey, which will be used to develop a priority list for street paving in the future. Van Norman said the company has completed its report and recommendations for maintenance, but he has not received it.

The paving in the South Ward has been completed, South Ward Alderman Willis Thompson said. Mayfield said Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and streets in Cedar Hill Cemetery have been paved. He said work is expected to begin on Mission 66, one of the city’s most traveled streets, Monday.

“They’re getting some of the streets that really need it that we patch a lot, so it does take the load off us,” Whittington said. “There’s still a lot of them out there; they’re not getting all of them, but they will.”

Mayfield said utility surveys detected problem areas under the North Ward roads, which were repaired before the streets were resurfaced. “Hopefully, we won’t have to go back and cut these roads after they’re paved.”

Utilities were not included in the bond issue, because the city utilities are governed under a separate set of state regulations. The EPA consent decree, however, is ongoing.

The city in 2013 was cited by the EPA for allowing raw sewage to run into local streams and the Mississippi River. Under the consent decree, the city must inspect, map and repair or replace one-tenth of its sewer system annually.

“Over the course of the next 10 years, we’ll look at and repair everything that is wrong with the sewer lines if we don’t run out of money,” Van Norman said.

“We’re anticipating spending $3 to $4 million a year on the sewer,” he said. “Those numbers come from what they’ve experienced in Memphis (Tenn.), which is a similar town to Vicksburg. The EPA got to them before they got us.

“It’s going to be over a minimum of 10 years. You sort of have to leap frog. You have to assess it, and then you have to fix it, so you might be in your second year of assessment and your first year of repair.”

The waterlines, Van Norman said, are in good shape, adding the city is progressing with a new engineering firm on the 529 project to install an auxiliary waterline for the city. The project gets its name from the 529 grant it received from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the work.

The problem with the water treatment plant, Van Norman said, is being examined by CDM Smith, and the city plans to hire a private company to manage the plant.

Flaggs would like to see the board develop a 10-year master plan for future capital improvements and infrastructure maintenance that can be followed by future city administrations. He would also like to see a capital improvement program for utilities that includes upgrading as repairs are made.

Mayfield and Thompson agree a utility plan is needed but want to take a closer look.

“A utilities program may work out over time, but you could never get enough money floated in a bond issue in Vicksburg to take care of all the problems, because the city has to deal with all the utilities outside of electricity,” he said.

“These are things that have to be done,” Thompson said. “We just have to find a way to do them and be able to maintain and make upgrades to your infrastructure. We’ve got quite a few things and we’re going to have to address them as problems arise.

“We need to look at the best way to proceed. I don’t believe in borrowing money if you don’t have to. I think we need to make assessments and recommendations, and see if we can make some gradual improvements.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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