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Infrastructure needs far more than a week of attention

Infrastructure. Maybe we finally need that elusive “Infrastructure Week.” A week. Right.

On this beautiful and warming morning, following a most surreal week, we in Warren County are just about patched up with our utilities. Amazing crews worked in very difficult conditions. Power, telephone and cable lines are mostly re-poled and restrung. We are still under a “boil water” notice as a matter of law and prudence, for another day or so.  Our citizens have responded mostly with patience and with several instances of heroism.

Vicksburg and Warren County, like the rest of the world, have miles and miles of mostly unseen utilities: water, natural gas, sewer, storm drainage, those mysterious new color-coded cables. Some a hundred years old or older. Deep, shallow, crisscrossed, root-bound. Some installed by public utilities, others by developers. Thousands of taps to serve our buildings, fire hydrants, fire sprinklers and irrigation. Pipes of iron, steel, clay, concrete, plastic, even brick. Myriad levels of quality and condition. Some brittle and corroded, a majority way beyond their expected service life. Running under streets, alleys, yards, bottoms. Most of these systems are under old streets, subjected to vibrations, in many cases under layers of pavement — asphalt over brick over concrete, in an infamously erodible soil. Some lines emerge to cross creeks or span under bridges, exposed to the elements.

An ongoing national dialogue is that we need to address “our aging infrastructure.” Ongoing, because it is very, very hard to accomplish. Imagine replacing even parts of a water system. Find, mark and avoid the gas, sewer and cable lines. Trench streets to access the old lines and to find all the meter taps.  Install the new lines and taps while the old ones are still active? A slow swap-over? Must keep the fire hydrants active. How much downtime and traffic diversion are people willing to allow to replace a system that is “still working?” We have to maintain access for fire trucks and ambulances and to each driveway. Probably have to cancel street parking for a few months. Barricades are needed to keep kids from falling in the trenches. Everyone okay with losing trees along the right-of-way? May need to bust some sidewalks and take out ancient azalea beds to reconnect buildings. May have to burrow lines under retaining walls. Backfill and patch the streets, pavement and yards. Put the historic brick back. Should we go ahead and replace the gas and sewer lines while everything is torn up? How much money do we have? How much patience?

And beyond the water meters, the pipes are the responsibility of the property owners. Do we make everyone inspect and replace the old pipes leading up to their house, many hanging under crawl spaces wrapped in towels or old sheets for when those previous freezes came through? Are there enough plumbers? Can we all get grants for that? And again, how much downtime are we willing to put up with? It all seems to be working now (today, finally, we seem to be way better off than a lot of other places.)

So we don’t do that. Nobody does that on a large scale. What we do, in the case of water, is maintain our water plant to pump our very fine water into this system that allows for a normal amount of leaks due to aging, and to quickly address leaks whenever they are discovered. Vicksburg has done that better than most. I have seen water bubbling through the pavement in the morning, a crew working a dug hole at lunch, then an asphalt patch rolled out by dinner time. Our city leaders, and especially our crews, deserve much credit for this. It is practically the best we can do.

In the past, we have recovered from water system emergencies as quickly and efficiently as possible, and in ways that were somewhat convincing that we were generally OK, but with some continuing doubts by our leaders as to the real capacity of our water plant reserves. The week of February 15-21 was not normal, and the prolonged deep freeze, the sequence of some main failures and customer drawdowns, followed by thawing and the revelation of systematic leaks, both public and private, laid bare where we are. (In this, we are no different from almost every system from Brandon to west Texas.) 

Already, Mayor Flaggs, the Aldermen and department heads have transitioned from heroic emergency-week mode to a serious look at increasing our water production, maybe with vast improvements to, or replacement of, our existing plant, and maybe adding another water plant on the south side of town. Some redundancy, for the present and the future. We really don’t have a choice, and we need to support our leaders in this endeavor, both to serve our citizens, and to attract industries. In that regard, we would be very competitive, based on where other areas are now with their water systems.

But we’ll need more than a week. 

Paul Ingram is an architect who lives in Vicksburg.