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Southern exposure: Cold wreaks havoc on aging waterworks

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The sunshine is back, and the ice has melted. But more than a week after a deep freeze across the South, many communities are still grappling with getting clean water to their residents.

Families stood in lines for hours to get drinking water. They boiled it to make it safe to drink or brush their teeth. They scooped up snow and melted it in their bathtubs. Hospitals collected buckets of water to flush toilets.

“You don’t realize how much you use water until you don’t have it,” said Brian Crawford, chief administrative officer for the Willis-Knighton Health System in the northwestern Louisiana city of Shreveport, where water pressure at one hospital only started returning to normal Wednesday. Tanker trucks had supplied it with water since last week.

For years, experts have warned of the need to upgrade aging and often-neglected waterworks. Now, after icy weather cracked the region’s water mains, froze equipment and left millions without service, it’s clear just how much work needs to be done.

The still-unfolding problems have exposed extensive vulnerabilities. Many water systems have decades-old pipes, now fragile and susceptible to breaking. White flight dropped tax revenue in some cities, and a lack of investment has caused problems to become even costlier to fix. Many systems in the South were not built with such low temperatures in mind. But with climate change projected to bring more extreme weather, problems like those seen last week could return.

A 2018 survey by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated $473 billion was needed over 20 years to maintain and improve water infrastructure.

In a 2020 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers said a water main breaks every two minutes on average in the U.S., and described “chronic, long-term and insufficient investment.” The report warned that the “nation’s public health and the economy will be at risk.”

Actually, it’s already happening.

The Mississippi capital of Jackson struggled to fix its damaged water grid, with thousands still facing outages.

In Memphis, residents in the city of 650,000 were told for nearly a week to boil water for three minutes if they planned to use it for drinking, cooking or brushing their teeth. The boil-water advisory was lifted Thursday. Nearly 25,000 Louisianans still had water outages Thursday, and hundreds of thousands more were under boil advisories.

In Texas, more than 2 million remained under boil water notices Wednesday and 40 public water systems are “nonoperational,” affecting 25,000 people, state officials said. At the height of the problems last week, at least 7 million Texans were told to boil their water. The order was finally lifted Sunday for Houston, where millions had endured power and water outages in the nation’s fourth-largest city that is more accustomed to hurricanes than winter storms.

As temperatures fell below freezing across the South, residents kept their faucets open to prevent pipes from freezing. But the increased demand taxed the already struggling systems, and the low water pressure meant that boil advisories were needed until safety tests could be completed.

Charles Williams, director of public works for the city of Jackson, said that as frozen machinery at the water plant began to thaw with rising temperatures, dozens of water mains broke.

Old pipes in the city have a history of breaking after cold weather, but a declining tax base has Jackson struggling to maintain its infrastructure.

Following integration, affluent white families moved to the suburbs, taking their tax dollars with them. Now, more than a quarter of residents in Mississippi’s majority-black capital live in poverty.

Madonna Manor maintenance supervisor Lamar Jackson, left, stacks bottled water brought by Mac Epps of Mississippi Move on Monday as part of the supply efforts by city councilman and State Rep. De'Keither Stamps to a senior residence in west Jackson, Mississippi. The snow and ice that crippled some states across the South has melted. But it has exposed the fragility of aging waterworks that experts have been warning about for years. AP PHOTO/ROGELIO V. SOLIS
FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2021, file photo, Handyman Roberto Valerio, left, hands homeowner Nora Espinoza the broken pipe after removing it from beneath her kitchen sink in Dallas. The pipe broke during freezing temperatures brought by last week's winter weather. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)