The Commercial Appeal
To overcome pressure woes and create jobs, fix water infrastructure
When Eddie Anderson saw a Commercial Appeal photographer arrive to take a picture of him as he talked about his ordeal in trying to coax water out of his faucet after days of subfreezing temperatures and busted pipes, he declined.
Not simply because he was shy, but mostly because his clothes were dirty.
They were dirty because even after the pipes were repaired Anderson, a construction worker, still didn’t have water because the pressure was too low.
That meant no water to take baths. Or to wash dishes. Or clothes. And he didn’t want anyone seeing him like that.
“Look at me,” said Anderson, as he pointed to the spatters of white paint on his navy sweatshirt and light blue jeans. “I’ve been able to get water, but I can’t clean myself up…
“This beard is gray and itchy, and I shave every day. But I can’t now… mr. Dwayne [his employer Dwayne Jones] has been giving me water, and other people have been giving me water. But I have to do a lot of other things besides drink water – like cook and wash clothes.”
Anderson, who lives in an Orange Mound rooming house, described a plight that thousands of Memphians are grappling with: Low water pressure spawned by more than a week of snow and temperatures that froze pipes and pushed Memphis Light, Gas and Water’s outdated water infrastructure to the edge.
The low-water pressure has forced MLGW officials to issue a boil water order for residents to ensure that biological contaminants aren’t mixed into the water that some are fortunate enough to see trickling out of their faucets; contaminants that could cause diarrhea and pose serious health risks to babies, young children and people older than 65.
It has also forced thousands to line up for bottled water in places like the Orange Mound Community Center, as most supermarket shelves have been emptied.
Anderson, however, missed out on that latest giveaway.
“It’ll probably be a couple days before I can get water [inside his room],” he said. “I have to go down the street to
get water just to boil and drink.”
Yet once MLGW begins to fix the infrastructure deficiencies that deepened this problem, hopefully it'll do it with people like Anderson in mind.
MLGW President and CEO J.T. Young recently told the Memphis City Council that if the water system here was a patient, it would be in critical condition. Some portions of the aging infrastructure date back to the 1930s.
Memphis isn't alone: According to the American Water Works Association, there are around 240,000 water main breaks all over the nation each year.
But repairing that infrastructure won't just stave off catastrophes like this in the future. It can create jobs as well – many of which don't require more than a high school diploma.
According to a Brookings report, rebuilding the water infrastructure is rife with opportunity – and those opportunities exist in virtually every city. In 2016, Memphis ranked 47 among the nation's 100 largest metro areas when it came to water work occupations, and those jobs represented 1 to 2 percent of all the jobs in the Memphis area.
Meaning there's lots of room for improvement.
While plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters make up 21% of the 7,143 water workers – at 1,513 – construction workers and laborers, like Anderson, made up the second largest number, at 697. The third largest? Helpers for plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters, at 598. On top of that, water work jobs pay fairly competitive wages; according to Brookings, in 2016 the 10th percentile hourly wage that water workers earned in Memphis was $12.78, compared to $8.34 in that percentile for all other occupations.
“At a time when many workers remain disconnected from economic opportunity and lack the skills training, or awareness of where to turn, the water sector offers a variety of pathways to more inclusive employment outcomes…” the report reads.
“Water jobs tend to pay more than the average American job, especially at lower ends of the income scale. They also require significantly less formal education and help workers develop a wide range of technical skills…”
Right now, MLGW doesn't know when it can instruct Memphians to stop boiling water. It doesn't know when the busted water mains will be repaired, or when people can turn on their faucets and get a flow and not a drip – or when people like Anderson can turn on their faucets and get any water at all.
But MLGW, as well as the Memphis City Council, should know that if it doesn't want a repeat of this catastrophe, it must repair its crumbling water infrastructure. Once this crisis is past, MLGW would be wise to intensify its focus on that. This may well be the time to revisit rate hikes and other remedies, because this is a moment when it has the attention of taxpayers who are enduring the misery it has deepened.
So that in the future, a problem driven by aged infrastructure won't have people lining up for water. Instead, it'll have lining up for another necessity. Jobs.