A Sound Old Structure and Modern Instruments Spell Plant of the Year for this Mississippi Facility

Upgrades in technology, monitoring and maintenance keep Vicksburg’s water plant churning out a quality product and earning awards for excellence.

A Sound Old Structure and Modern Instruments Spell Plant of the Year for this Mississippi Facility

>span class="s2">Robert Sanders, who has earned degrees in microbiology and chemistry.

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There was much to be done when ESG Operations took over the water plant in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After six years and many upgrades, the plant now turns out some of the best water in the state and is a consistent award winner.

From 2019 through 2021, the Vicksburg team received the Plant of the Year award from the Alabama-Mississippi Section AWWA. “I’ve tried for that award almost every year since I’ve been here,” says Eddie Busby, operations manager for five years under ESG, which received the contract from the city in 2016.

Along the way, the team also won the 2020 Best Drinking Water Award from the Mississippi Rural Water Association. “Our water is very hard here,” Busby observes. “It blows me away that we get the water quality we do with this process, but it works.”

In large part, the plant functions well because of various upgrades and modernizations in recent years in a plant built in 1969.

Rich in iron

The plant draws water from 17 wells. The raw water first undergoes aeration to oxidize iron, and hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide are released to the atmosphere at the same time. Raw water hardness is 240 to 340 ppm, and the iron concentration is 7 to 8 ppm.

“I have four wells that are super hard,” says Busby. “The rest of them, I consider them soft wells, but the iron is still high.” When he pumps from one of the super-hard wells, he also pumps from two or three others to blend the water and reduce chemical needs.

After aeration, slakers (Integrity) add quick lime, increasing the pH increases to about 10. Iron attaches to the lime floc, settles in two 1 million-gallon clarifiers (Ovivo), and is drawn off with the sludge.

A timer releases sludge into a pit where a pair of pumps (Penn Valley) move it into a thickening tank for settling. Another pair of pumps (also Penn Valley) move the sludge into a plant for addition of polymer and dewatering on two belt presses (Andritz). Trucks haul away the cake for application on farmland.

Carbon dioxide is added to the water to drop the pH to about 8.5. Liquid chlorine feeders (Hydro Omni) provide disinfection, and water flows through a standard filter comprised of anthracite, sand and gravel before moving into the distribution system. The plant normally runs on one clarifier, but if demand is heavy, both are used.

Pandemic benefit

Busby’s team includes Barry Renfrow, Dennis Hicks and Robert Sanders, Class A operators; Wayne Andrews, operator in training; Willie Flagg, sludge plant operator; Roger Lester, maintenance supervisor; Andrew Ahlvin, maintenance technician; and Candace Grimshel, administrative assistant. The plant is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Like many water plants around the country, Vicksburg has trouble finding people who want water jobs. The pandemic eased that problem for the city because two college graduates couldn’t find suitable work elsewhere.

Sanders, who has degrees in microbiology and chemistry, was working part time at the city swimming pool when a co-worker suggested he talk to Busby. The wastewater division hired Ronni Wolfe, who has a degree in chemical engineering and is engaged to Sanders’ brother.

“Both of them have really bright futures,” Busby says. “I’m pushing them just as hard as I can, and they like what they’re doing. They never thought about working in a water plant.”

Busby emphasizes education and licensing for his team. “I’ve got three Class A’s in this water plant, and that’s almost unheard of in Mississippi,” he says. “We go to conferences in Mobile, Alabama, and it’s all older people. They’re about ready to walk out the door, and there’s no one to take their place.”

Keeping up to date

The plant has been through a number of upgrades under ESG’s leadership. “This plant is 50 years old, and a lot of the equipment is manual,” Busby says. “When we came here, there was just a control panel with switches. Now we have a full SCADA system that monitors our tanks and turns the wells on and off.”

Busby chose to limit what can be done with the system. He could monitor operation from home and even control the plant, but given the prevalence of computer hacking, he considers the risk to the plant and public is too great.

As further insurance against production upsets, the team has revamped procedures for power outages; there is a risk of hurricanes rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico about 200 miles south.

There are no automatic transfer switches; wiring is not set up for them, and all 17 wells, just across the road, are fed by the same power line from the water plant. To disconnect from the grid, an operator must pull a lever on one utility pole, pull another switch on the next utility pole, and manually start the emergency generators.

The old procedure required operators to call the electric utility before switching to the generators. “And getting to the power company during a storm — it’s hard to get through,” Busby says. 

Printed reference

To help monitor equipment, a board shows the status of every piece of equipment in the plant. Check marks show whether machines are running or require repair. “That way all the operators in the plant know at a glance what’s working and what’s not,” Busby says.

Data plays an important role. State rules specify testing of the water every six hours; Vicksburg technicians test every two hours. Data is entered into the computer system along with information such as the day and time when instruments were calibrated. Anomalies are flagged by the system. Managers at the ESG corporate office can see this information, and area managers receive messages if something is out of specification.

A computerized maintenance management system covers every piece of equipment, along with a picture and the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions; the software generates a unique identifying number. When maintenance or replacement is due, the system generates a work order.

“One of those well motors, if it burns up, that’s $70,000,” says Busby. “You’ve got to take care of the equipment.” Spares are on site for about 90% of the equipment. Although there is an effort to minimize paper, there is an exception favored by ESG’s owners: Trend charts are printed and hung on a wall.

“Each operator, every day, charts the pH and the chlorine where they can physically see it in the room,” Busby says. “It’s not like someone putting data into a computer and not seeing a trend. If something does go south, most of the time you can see something happening a little bit before on a trend chart.”

Facility planning

In Busby’s five years at the plant, the city has spent about $10 million on upgrades: “A lot of the equipment, you couldn’t buy parts to fix anymore.” Credit for the upgrades goes to the city, which recognized the need and committed to spending the necessary funds, he says.

The future of the Vicksburg plant is in flux. City officials want to build a port for the community, and they’re looking to do that on the city’s south end on the Mississippi River. The water plant is on the north end, on an arm of the Yazoo River, and its space is limited by the river and businesses around it.

A number of feasibility studies have been done for the port project. “If that happens, then we will have to do something else, either add to our capacity or put some wells in down on that end of town,” Busby says. “From what they’re telling me, we won’t be able to handle the demand from that industry if they build a port.”

That will be the key factor in deciding what happens with the plant. Busby observes, “With all the modifications we’ve done, this plant should be able to last the city another 15 years with no problem.”   


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