A Mississippi System Succeeds With a Quality Team Paying Constant Attention to Detail

Two water plants in the Mississippi city of Meridian operate smoothly with a knowledgeable team backed by SCADA and a state-certified laboratory

A Mississippi System Succeeds With a Quality Team Paying Constant Attention to Detail

Stanley Reeves, senior plant operator, takes a morning sample for testing at the South Water Treatment Plant.

Jimmy D. Eckman calls it an operation that almost runs on cruise control.

In reality, the drinking water system in Meridian, Mississippi, succeeds because of a quality team paying constant attention to detail, led by Eckman as chief utility plant operator.

Meridian operates two water plants, named co-winners of the 2018 Water Treatment Plant of the Year award from the Alabama/Mississippi Section of the American Water Works Association. Both plants operate the same way, and both are iron-removal plants. Source water delivers iron at about 3 ppm.

The larger North Plant, built in 1996, has three wells on the property. After the water is pumped up, it flows by gravity through an induced-draft aerator. The plant has a pair of 10 mgd aerators to help oxidize the iron so it begins forming particles. Alum, chlorine and lime are injected before the water flows to plate settlers. Filters are standard gravity-flow sand-anthracite media.

The South Plant was built in 1952; the original 1887 building still stands. Much of it is used for storage, but it also contains the plant’s electrical service. Outside the building, a semitrailer holds a 350-kW emergency generator (Kohler Power Systems) to keep the wells and higher-horsepower equipment running. A 175-kW Kohler Power Systems generator runs the administration building and the head of the plant. Five wells on or near the South Plant property supply 8.5 mgd.

The system has two booster stations (2 mgd and 1.5 mgd). The station on the south can pump to the north side of the city, which is slightly higher in elevation. Valves in the stations allow gravity flow from the north system to the south if needed. Rarely will one plant be down completely for maintenance. Each plant has two treatment trains, so one can operate while technicians perform maintenance on the other.

Making it work

Eckman takes pride in the operations and maintenance team. Stanley Reeves is senior plant operator at South Plant; his team includes operators Tyrone Harbour, Ken Vanderpool and Noah Dooley. The North Plant team includes Joshua Pratt, acting senior utility operator, and Edgar Lynn Pratt, operator.

The maintenance team includes Thomas Perkins, Ricky King, Angelo Bell and Kimberly Rose, senior maintenance workers; Albert Edmonds, plant technician; and David Culliver, groundskeeper. Destiny Lewis is senior secretary.

The South Plant, being older and more in need of manual operation, is staffed around the clock. It serves as the main dispatch center for Public Works services after hours and handles the digger’s hotline. The North Plant was designed to run without an operator on duty; it is staffed eight hours a day Monday through Friday but runs continuously.

A $1 million upgrade about five years ago that includes a SCADA system (Control Systems, Jackson, Mississippi) enables operators to run both plants from either location. Normally that is done from the South Plant. Operators can increase or decrease water flow, monitor all tank levels, backwash filters and monitor all the alarms by way of SCADA.

Equipped for testing

Meridian has one of Mississippi’s few state-certified labs. “Most people deliver their samples to the local health department,” Eckman says. “A courier picks them up and carries them to the state health laboratory in Jackson.”

Samples for lead, copper, VOCs and a few other substances still have to go to the state lab. The main advantage of having the lab is the ability to run bacteriological samples in-house, Eckman says. Lab technicians can be hard to come by because municipal jobs can’t match the wages private companies pay.

As recently as last February, Meridian had two lab technician slots vacant. To fill lab jobs, the city sometimes hires applicants with environmental science degrees; training and state certification can take place while the person is working. The city also offers periodic internships through the University of West Alabama; some interns become full-time team members.

Meanwhile, the water utility faces the challenge of growth. Near-future plans call for two more wells at the North Plant because most of the demand is on the city’s north side, where there are newer subdivisions, golf courses and a shopping center.

The North Plant produces about 65 percent of Meridian’s water and has since the 1990s, when the city took an in-depth look at demand. The plant has a great deal of land around it, purchased by the city to provide space for considerable expansion. “We’ve reached a point where if one of our wells went down during the summer, we could possibly have a hard time keeping up with the flow needed on the north side of town,” Eckman says.

Challenge in the ground

At the South Plant, the city’s drinking water history still stands, both in that 1887 building and what’s beneath it. “This was the original site of the water plant, and every line that was put underground is still there,” Eckman says. “We have freshwater lines, wastewater lines, drainlines, gas lines, power lines.

“Sometimes it’s a nightmare when we have a leak on the plant grounds because we’ve got 120-year-old, 130-year-old waterlines still in place. Then we do an upgrade and put new lines in place, and very rarely does anybody remove abandoned pipe underground.” He’s pretty sure most of the old pipes have been abandoned.

If there’s a small leak, the team can take its time to dig down. Sometimes they dig with a backhoe, but at other times they have to use shovels. During Eckman’s 24 years, there have been only three major leaks. One took about 12 hours to isolate because of the caution the crew had to take working through that maze of underground pipes.

Keeping up with rules and regulations is another challenge, but the state Health Department has a good process and notifies plants of changes as soon as possible. “The way they look at it, they train you right to begin with, so when they do implement something, you’ll know a whole lot more about how to do it and get it done,” Eckman says.

Smooth running

As for daily operations, “We’re really more proactive than reactive,” Eckman says. “We do our preventive maintenance, and that pretty much catches everything. One thing we teach people when they come to work for us is to look and listen. If it sounds different today than it did yesterday, we need to know about it. I like to teach the operators to look at the color of the water in the process, like the color of water in the settling basin, because that can tell you a lot about what’s working right and what’s not working right.”

Over time, he says, an operator can look at the treatment train and know when the chemicals are right. If the water looks different in an hour, that means something changed. The pH may be too high or too low, or the alum flow may have stopped. The SCADA system provides much of the information operators need, and they watch it, but if they understand the process in a thorough, step-by-step way, they can catch problems much faster, Eckman says.

“We have the meters that test the water. We have all those fancy gizmos. But the type of manager I am, I like the operators to be able to work without those fancy gizmos. Like washing the filters at a plant. I’d rather the operators know every step and how to do it versus pushing a button and letting the plant wash itself.”

“At our South Plant, all of our sampling is done with grab samples on the first portion of the plant, and they do a grab sample every hour. If they go out the next hour and the water does not look right, they’re going to sample it, but they’re going to have an idea of what the problem is before they run that sample.” This may be an old-fashioned way of training, but Eckman prefers not to rely entirely on equipment.

For 14 of the last 16 years, the Meridian plant had a perfect score on the annual state assessment of the utility’s technical, managerial and operational abilities. In one of the two less-than-perfect years, someone in Meridian misread a letter from the state and the team took too few samples.

The other lower score came after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when rules changed on the fencing of water tanks. One Meridian tank wasn’t fenced according to the standard. It was a 5.5-million-gallon tank built inside a mountain, and arguably a fence was unnecessary for security. Eckman made that argument, but the state didn’t see it his way.

Future work

As of late last year, Meridian was kicking off the first phase of an $8.5 million upgrade that will replace all the filter media and underdrains at the North Plant. The second phase will do the same at the South Plant. Also included are replacement of valves installed in 1952 when the South Plant was rebuilt and adding the pair of new 2 mgd wells at the North Plant. Money is coming from the Mississippi State Revolving Loan Fund.

Both phases are to be completed by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, the Meridian plants run like a car on cruise control. It’s easy, as long as you keep the car in excellent mechanical condition and a firm hand on the wheel.

Keeping source options open

Meridian, Mississippi, now draws drinking water from wells, but city leaders have not closed off other options. On the southeast side of the city is the Bonita Lakes reservoir, which used to feed the city’s downtown water treatment plant (now called the South Plant).

The intake pipes leading to the South Plant are still in place, says Jimmy D. Eckman, chief utility plant operator. That leaves the possibility of returning to surface water if needed.

That would require some work. The state lists the plant as a Class B facility, and it would have to upgrade to a Class A before switching back to surface water. There also would have to be new chemical induction for the surface water. “Really, it would just take a lot of money, because we have two Class A operators on staff,” Eckman says. “That would be myself and Hugh Smith, our Public Works director.”

During Eckman’s time with the city, plants used a mix of about 80 percent well water and 20 percent surface water. Long ago, the city used surface water only. Later it switched to wells.

“It’s really a safer, more economical way of doing it,” Eckman says. “But we like to have the alternative to go back to surface water if the need arises.” 

Bonita Lakes has a 3,000-acre watershed, all owned by the city. Although there’s a park, the land has remained undeveloped to protect the water quality. Eckman observes, “We’ve got 30 miles of hiking, biking and horseback trails, and we do all kinds of events out there throughout the year.”


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