Columbus Light and Water General Manager Angela Verdell appeared at the Columbus City Council’s Thursday work session to request about $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to put toward three wastewater projects.
The city received a total of about $5 million in ARPA funding from the federal government. The money must be obligated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
The council did not vote on whether to fund CLW’s request on Thursday.
Verdell described all three of them as major priorities for her department. She said they touch all six wards and affect many low- to moderate-income households. The first is rehabilitating the wastewater lift station at 22nd Street South; the second is a force main relocation for the lift station at Martin Luther King Drive and the third is a relining of old sewer pipes throughout the city.
The total cost for the projects is just more than $2 million. Verdell is asking for about half of the cost from the city’s ARPA, with the rest to come from dollar-for-dollar matches from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. MDEQ is overseeing the allocation of the state’s ARPA pool for water and drainage projects.
Verdell said there are 61 lift stations throughout the city to handle wastewater, and the system, which was designed about 10 million gallons daily, handles about 6 million gallons right now.
“The 22nd Street lift station impacts Ward 1, 4, 5 and 6,” Verdell said. “This project is No. 1 on the list, the reason being that this station is one of two final points of transmitting waste water to the treatment facility. It has about two-thirds of the city’s waste water flowing through it.”
The facility is more than 40 years old, with all of the problems that come with age.
“There is degradation of the piping, the valves, the pumps,” she said. “We are asking for assistance in revamping those components within that station.”
The station is about 30 feet below ground, and failure would be “catastrophic,” Verdell said, especially if sewer began to overflow into the surrounding area. One of the sewer lines leading to the pump in the wastewater facility is clogged and does not work.
“There is no bypass for emergencies,” she said. “There is no way to have true planned outages for repair.”
The second project, the lift station on MLK, affects Wards 3, 4 and 6, including Cady Hills, Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle and Fox Run.
“Anything on north (Highway 45) and the northeast portion of the city,” Verdell said.
Repair will help to reduce sanitary sewer overflows and sewer backing up into residences, she said. The lines would be upgraded from six-inch to 48-inch.
Finally, is citywide rehabilitation of sewer lines, she said.
“This will provide increased integrity of the lines,” she said. “… The old pipes that we have in place right now are made of concrete and clay, and there has been a lot of degradation and they are taking in a lot of ground water.”
Verdell said that she thinks CLW has a strong case to get state money.
“We qualify for over half of the things that MDEQ looks for,” she said. “For instance, there is an environmental impact. We impact people across all wards. One of the bullets you need to check off is in-kind services, and we know we can provide that. … We’re also meeting the needs of disadvantaged communities.”
Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard said that the city needs to decide how to spend the $3 million set aside from ARPA for drainage projects quickly. Although the council voted to earmark the money in February, no decisions have been made as far as how, specifically, it will be spent.
“Right now we’re in limbo, with that $3 million just floating around,” Beard said. “This is very important, and it needs to happen.”
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones asked if CLW could afford to do the work by itself, without help from the city.
“Water and sewer and not is a very profitable division in any utility,” Verdell said. “There is only so much we can budget every year. We may have $250,000 a year we can budget for lining, so we can’t get a lot done at a time and these projects just get prolonged.”
City Chief Financial Officer James Brigham asked if any of this work had any connection to the nearly $9 million bond the city issued on CLW’s behalf last year.
“That was for the electric side, and you cannot commingle (water and electric) funds,” she said.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Taylor Stewart was strongly in favor.
“Columbus is like a fishbowl, and we are filling that fishbowl,” she said. “Every time it rains my phone rings all day with people saying their toilet won’t flush. … What good is this money if we don’t put it to good use?”
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens said he thought the project was a “no-brainer.”
“We need to move forward and do whatever we need to do,” he said. “These decisions need to be made, and we don’t need to kick them down the road anymore.”
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.