New technology can solve Jackson’s water main breaks

By WYATT EMMERICH,

I was reading the Northside Sun and drinking coffee one recent morning when I noticed the strange gurgling sound of running water, as though I had a quaint little brook running through my front yard.

I got up from the couch and followed my ears out my front door to the side of Rebel Drive, my cute cul-de-sac off Northeast Drive in Northeast Jackson’s LOHO neighborhood.

My neighbor and good friend Nick Garrard beat me to the punch. We stood there gazing at the new stream running down our street, courtesy of a busted water main right under the road. Drat, we said.

Worse, Rebel Drive had recently been repaved, a miraculous feat my neighbors mistakenly attributed to my influence as publisher of the Northside Sun. The newly paved road was already cracking in multiple places as the water found its way to the surface.

Over the next 24 hours, we watched as the brook turned into a stream and then an urban river. At first the water was clay-colored and full of chunks of asphalt and Yazoo clay the size of bricks. But after a while, an entire layer of materials under the road surface had washed away to make a smooth conduit for the ever-increasing flow.

After a day or so, a Jackson road crew arrived. They dug a big hole about 10-feet deep and placed a very impressive-looking clamp on the ancient cast iron water pipe. They filled the hole up with rocks and gravel and went on their merry way.

The next day Nick and I were chatting and inspecting our newly torn up road. “Well at least they were able to fix it,” we acknowledged. While we were standing there talking, we heard a strange faint gurgling sound. It grew louder and louder. Then suddenly, boom, a six-foot geyser erupted from the hole in the street. The clamp had failed.

A day or so later the crew returned. “You’re not here to destroy my new beautiful water fountain are you?” I joked. The supervisor was nice, and I asked him if he had a higher grade of clamp since the first one blew. Nope, he said. Same clamp. They were just going to try again.

I asked him how old the pipes were. “Some are 80 years old,” he said. We both shook our heads in amazement.

The second clamp worked. No more river. No more fountain. But our cracked Rebel Drive has a big hole in it filled with gravel.

This Sunday I was golfing at Lake Caroline with my buddy Jeff Good of Bravo fame. It was a beautiful day on a beautiful course. Everything good until Jeff got a text.

“Water’s out at Broad Street,” he moaned. No rest for the weary. Jeff sprang into action, texting, emailing and calling his network which included Robert Miller, Jackson’s head of public works.

“Broad Street is on top of a hill so whenever there is a water main break, our pressure drops to nothing. No water, no food. No food, no customers. Not good,” Jeff said.

Not long ago, Jeff had watched me suffer through a press breakdown. “It’s like when one of your presses goes down,” he said.

We finished up the last few holes and drove to Old Canton Road, about halfway between I-55 and State Street. Sure enough, a river of water was pouring through multiple cracks in the pavement, shutting off the water supply to numerous nearby residences and businesses. The water was destroying the street before our very eyes. The only good news: There wasn’t much left to destroy on this street, which is decades overdue for a repaving.

Jackson’s growth began in earnest around 1930, so a lot of Jackson cast iron water mains really are 80 years old. Making matters worse, these water mains are surrounded by an unusually nasty brew of Yazoo Clay.

The cost to replace all these old pipes is probably more than a hundred million, problematic for a city that has already reached the state debt limit for a municipality. So the city just repairs leaks as they spring.

Which raises a fundamental question no one seems to be able to answer: What happens if or when the frequency of the leaks begins to exceed the capacity of the city to repair them? Add this to your list of major future calamities to worry about.

Or as Robert Miller told the Eastover homeowners association, Jackson’s problems aren’t unusual, but it’s unusual to see them all happening at the same time.

I asked my friend Ashby Foote, who is chairman of the Jackson City Council Finance Committee, what is to be done? He is hoping for a federal infrastructure bailout. Right, like the feds are rolling in budget surpluses.

Perhaps there are some technological breakthroughs that will save the day, so I turned to Google for the answer.

And, of course, it took me all of five minutes to find the solution: flexible HDPE plastic pipe. A machine bores through the old cast iron pipe and drags in a new high-tech flexible plastic pipe that will last 100 years. No need to dig up the old pipe to replace the new. Just one small hole gets the process started. Presto! New water mains.

Fort Wayne, Indiana, is doing this right now, after 400 water main breaks a year forced that city’s hand. They plan to replace nine miles of pipes a year. They are employing directional drilling techniques first developed for the oil industry. Eleven projects at a cost of $16.5 million have replaced 30 miles of water mains.

So there you have it, technology comes to the rescue. But it’s up to good city leadership to deploy these innovations and overcome an entrenched bureaucracy comfortable with doing things the old way.

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1. He drove a blue ‘77 Chevy Nova in high school. 2. He played on Jackson Prep’s 1985 and 1986 state championship basketball teams.