Hattiesburg's leaders are working on a plan to improve the drinking water in the city.
Mayor Toby Barker said his team received the 2017 Inspection of Drinking Water Supply from the Mississippi State Department of Health at the end June, which outlined a higher level of iron in the supply.
The MSDH asses the city's supply and treatment plants, based on technical, managerial, and financial functions on a scale of one to five. In 2016, the city of Hattiesburg scored a 4.7 out of 5 on its overall capacity. The report included recommendations for minor adjustments to Plant #2, Weathersby Plant and Forrest General Plant and major adjustments to for Plant #1, located off the Highway 42 Bypass. Those improvements included: investigate filters, increase maintenance and update operation efficiencies and an aggressive flushing program in areas that consist of iron distribution to alleviate high iron levels of .25 mg.
In 2017, the city's score decreased from a 4.7 to a 4 out of 5 based on issues at Water Plant #1. Those issues included a higher level of iron, from .25 mg in 2016 to .44mg, and poorly-functioning forced-draft aerators.
"We have some short term fixes that we are looking at right now, trying to replace some aerator motors in both of aeration systems here," Barker said. "We are also looking at long term solutions, engineers looking at it right now."
Aerators increase the oxygen saturation of water. Lamar Rutland, Director of Engineering for Hattiesburg, said contractors are working this week on the force draft aeration system. Improving the system could lead to a decrease in that iron level, something Rutland said should not be alarming to residents.
"There's not going to be really any side effects. The Health Department, EPA and everything says iron is safe to drink, its a reoccurring element," said Rutland. "Residents may see some discolored water, I doubt it, based on the small amounts coming through our system. They won't see it as a direct cause of this, it's more the old lines in your area."
Mayor Barker said improvements have been made to the building, built in the 1930's, with an addition in the 1990's, but the location is due for improvements. He said those improvements could cost several millions of dollars.
"What the public needs to know is those rather significant upgrades are going to take money," Barker said. "I think that points to a larger picture of our city right now, that we need to make some significant infrastructure improvements to make sure as we grow the quality of our drinking water can be sustainable."
Rutland said the city hired engineers earlier this year to study Plant #1. He said they expect to have recommendations from those engineers in the coming weeks and from those recommendations and costs, the city "will probably move forward with plans."
"I think everyone knows the problems we have and we have so many water and sewer lines that need to be replaced and the brown water issue that we talked so much about in the campaign is one symptom of that," Barker said. "Our infrastructure needs to be replaced, there needs to be a plan to do that and that's what we are going to be working on in the coming weeks and months."
The 2017 report from MSDH stated the city "addressed recommended comments and made necessary repairs from last year's inspection" and "system officials should be commended for their efforts."
Mayor Barker said the water is safe to drink, but the city has to work to ensure the highest quality drinking water for residents and businesses, especially as the city grows. He said most of the shortcomings deal with maintenance and record keeping, what Mayor Barker said are fixable.