Story by Sabrina Dalton, Chief of Public Affairs, USACE Vicksburg District
Water is life. It’s integral to various systems, whether it be the human body or wetlands. Water hydrates, cleanses, and literally everything and everyone needs it to survive. Too much water and rivers’ banks overflow. Just as detrimental, too little water or water that is impure wreaks havoc, causing imbalance and upsetting systems.
During late August of this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was knee deep supporting the country with mission assignments that the Corps of Engineers is familiar with such as wildfires, floods, and hurricanes. One unexpected crisis ramped up USACE for an enterprise-wide, unified response to a not so familiar mission assignment – drinking water supply.
The upper Pearl River which courses through north Jackson, Mississippi, and supplies water to the Ross Barnett Reservoir experienced flooding which prompted the USACE Vicksburg District to activate its emergency operations center (EOC) at level 2 on Aug. 27th to provide direct and technical assistance to the state of Mississippi, affected counties, partners and sponsors.
Just as the floodwaters began receding, another crisis arose. The chemical composition of the water in Ross Barnett, which supplies raw water to the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant (WTP), changed so that it compromised the WTP’s ability to function properly, cutting off water supply to more than 150,000 residents and businesses of the state capital.
On Aug. 29, the city of Jackson declared a Water System Emergency and the state requested an Emergency Measures Declaration. The next day, a federal State of Emergency was declared, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
The USACE received a FEMA mission assignment (MA) on Sept. 1 to provide technical assistance to the City of Jackson. As part of the overall MA, USACE was tasked with developing a Resiliency Playbook to assist with long-term improvements to the Jackson water treatment facilities, O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell.
Anyone within the USACE enterprise with water, wastewater, or water supply experience who could work on this challenge at the WTPs was sought out to assist.
Within the first two days of USACE’s MA, a Vicksburg District team had boots-on-the-ground at O.B. Curtis and at Fewell to begin performing assessments to determine what the Unified Command could do to assist in repairing the two water treatment facilities. The Unified Command was composed of USACE, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), the EPA, FEMA, USACE, the City of Jackson, and was overall led by the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH).
Jamon Rucker, a cost engineer with the Vicksburg District who has 10 years of wastewater experience, was one of the initial assessment team members. “I’d worked for Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality previously, so I was familiar with O.B. Curtis from doing inspections there. I had knowledge about the sludge part of the plant and removing of the solids, so I was able to give my assessments of what needed to be done,” Rucker explained.
The reports that the USACE initial assessment team produced were the beginning target items for everyone else to begin working on that helped to restore water pressure and drinkable water within two weeks of the initial crisis.
Capt. Hayden Schappell, with the Vicksburg District, became the lead project manager for developing the Resiliency Playbook.
“This opened up my understanding of what the Corps truly brings to the table. We get so focused on what our individual districts can do, and we get very good at it. But, the Corps is so much bigger than that,” Schappell said.
USACE members with the Baltimore District Washington Aquaduct; Engineer, Research and Development Center (ERDC); Mississippi Valley Division; Vicksburg District; Mobile District Water and Wastewater Technical Center of Expertise, and Walla Walla District Cost Engineering Center of Expertise were leveraged to work together on the development of the Resiliency Playbook and ultimately help restore drinkable water for people.
Once water pressure and then water quality were restored, USACE’s role transitioned to long term solutions, developing a list of more than 60 projects to include in the Resiliency Playbook that will continue to improve the water infrastructure of the city of Jackson.
ERDC’s Dr. Edith Martinez-Guerra, research environmental engineer, in her regular job inspects military installations and reviews the resiliency of their water and power systems. She performed assessments of the Jackson WTPs based on the checklist that ERDC does for military installations and adapted it for civilian use. The checklist is something that can continue to be used as a measuring stick for improvement in the WTPs and is a major part of the playbook.
The USACE Vicksburg District will be the long-term project manager and will continue to support and help the city when the FEMA mission assignment ends at the end of October. Katy Breaux, a Vicksburg District senior project manager with a wealth of experience in environmental infrastructure programs, will be the continuity for the implementation of the playbook.
“This is unlike any emergency response we’ve ever done. Everything we were doing was novel and new. Because it’s so technical and so specific, it was a very different experience and for disasters,” said Breaux. “Sections 592 for the State of Mississippi and 219 (Water Resources Development Act of 1999 as amended in 2007) projects specifically for the city of Jackson as well as Planning Assistance to States (PAS) program under general investigations authority are long term solutions that have been identified to help.”
Not only did USACE work as an enterprise to deliver water supply solutions, but something even greater was realized from working as a whole-of-government team.
“We strengthened our relationships with our state and federal partners, working side-by-side. Edith was doing water quality samples and working with the EPA to discuss what needed to be repaired. Working closely with FEMA and the Department of Health, those with the expertise who’ve been doing surveys on the plants for years, was instrumental in the level of federal support that went to help people,” Breaux also added.
It’s also important to note that the Mississippi National Guard, MEMA and volunteers were helping to provide immediate relief by handing out water to ensure people were surviving during what is typically the hottest month of the year.
For the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, we know how vital water is to the sustainment and harmony of systems. Many USACE missions such as navigation, flood risk management, and environmental stewardship exist because of water and the need to engineer, innovate, and manage all that water affects.
When our nation, states, and communities call, USACE is in the business of answering the sound to assist during times of emergencies whether it be from flooding, wildfires, hurricanes or any other crisis that Mother Nature throws our way.
The USACE Vicksburg District is engineering solutions to the nation’s toughest challenges. The Vicksburg District encompasses a 68,000-square-mile area across portions of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana that holds seven major river basins and incorporates approximately 460 miles of mainline Mississippi River levees. The Vicksburg District is engaged in hundreds of projects and employs approximately 1,100 personnel.