Larry Fisher knows a thing or two about city water pipes.
The 20-year veteran of the Jackson Police Department and recently retired emergency operations director for Hinds County talked with the Mississippi Business Journal this week about the last time the capitol city faced a major crisis with its municipal water system.
“We were in a lot of trouble in 1989,” Fisher said on Wednesday. A similar lengthy cold snap that moved through the metro Jackson area just before Christmas that year led to many water line breaks around the city. Lines that range from 18 to 24 inches in diameter were simply unable to handle more than 60 pounds of water pressure.
“Repairs went on through Christmas,” Fisher said. “Thank goodness we were able to get that stabilized before New Year’s. We’re not used to this weather in the South.”
Fisher said that weather rather than age can be blamed for the current water pipe breakdown. “Every winter you have broken water lines,” he said. “The ground is freezing and when it freezes it contracts and pull the pipes one way and then when the ground thaws it pushes the pipes another way,” he said. “We have also had some line breaks in Byram this week… lines on Davis and Springridge Roads and also on Siwell Road. (Those pipes) are no more than 10 or 12 years old.”
The financial burden of repairing the water infrastructure for Mississippi’s largest city would be astronomical, Fisher said. A standard 6-inch water line costs between $75 and $85 a foot. “Even before the budget crunches we are seeing now, no mayor or governor could come out and say we’re gonna replace the entire system,” Fisher said. “It’s a costly venture.”
In the United States copper and less expensive cast iron materials were used to replace traditional lead piping beginning in the 20th Century. Fisher said that most pipeline systems in the older sections of Jackson, particularly in the Belhaven subdivision and downtown, date back to the late 1920s and 1930s. Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC piping was invented in the 1950s and is more commonly used today because it expands more easily during adverse weather conditions. While newer Mississippi communities like Byram use a combination of cast iron and PVC, lines in Jackson are still predominantly made of cast iron.
Fisher said that future piping needs to be laid deeper into the surface of the ground, depths that would insulate them from another surprise ice storm. Pipes in Jackson are laid as deep at 10 feet throughout most of the city with the downtown pipes running between 12 and 14 feet in the ground. “It’d be foolish to lower pipes that are there now,” Fisher said. “They can’t take that much stress being twisted or turned. Every street has a different size water line. The solution is to start (these new repair lines) from a point and go deep then as you progressively get further out replace your older line with new material and lower them deeper.”
Fisher said that his heart goes out to crews from Jackson and the surrounding area as they continue to work long hours to fix broken water lines. “They’re working in wet and muddy conditions and in extreme temperatures all at 12-hour shifts,” he said. “That’s pushing it because they have to go through every detail of the repairs.”