In March, engineer Edward “Ted” Henifin brought the federal judge who last year placed him in charge of the Jackson, Miss., drinking water system on a tour of work underway to rehabilitate the city’s long-neglected water infrastructure. 

After Henifin showed U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate repairs on a 48-in. line that had been leaking an estimated 5 million gallons of treated water per day into a creek for years, they drove by an active sewer overflow. It wasn’t part of Henifin’s work but it raised questions from the judge—especially after Henifin explained there were also more than 200 known leaks in the city’s wastewater treatment system.

“His eyes just about came out of his head," Henifin recalls, "and he said, ‘Well, do you think you should have the sewers?’ I said, ‘Maybe not me, but a similar structure might be a really good thing for the sewer [system] where you can move much quicker.’”

It appears the judge was already convinced, as were other key stakeholders, that Henifin was right to lead the sewer rehab job as well.

On July 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Mississippi Dept. of Environmental Quality and city of Jackson jointly filed a proposal in federal court that would make Henifin the interim third-party manager of the city's wastewater system. Officials would then negotiate modifications to a consent decree to ensure Jackson’s future compliance with state and federal regulations. Judge Wingate signed the agreement July 31, with a public comment period through Aug. 31. 

“Under [the] agreement, expedited measures will be taken to address the city of Jackson’s deteriorating sewer infrastructure and inadequate operation and maintenance, which have caused residents and businesses to endure sewage discharges that threaten public health and the environment,” said Todd Kim, assistant attorney general of the Justice Dept. Environment and Natural Resources Division, in a statement. 

Henifin is the former manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District in Virginia who, after retiring last year, began working with Jackson via the nonprofit U.S. Water Alliance. When the city experienced its drinking water system crisis last August, which left areas without water service for weeks, Henifin was one of several experts from the group who joined the unified command directing emergency repairs at the O.B. Curtis Treatment Plant to restore service. In November, Wingate appointed Henifin interim third-party manager of Jackson’s drinking water system as part of another agreement between federal, state and local officials.  

Henifin_Ted.jpgTed Henifin
Photo courtesy HRSD

After accepting the drinking water appointment, Henifin says he began to also notice problems with the city’s wastewater system. While some municipalities may occasionally experience overflows during wet weather, he was witnessing lots of dry-weather overflows in Jackson, like the one he showed the judge.

“Just sewage going down the streets,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Jackson operates three wastewater treatment plants. Under the terms of a 2013 EPA consent decree, the city was required to evaluate and rehabilitate its wastewater system, including the Savanna Street treatment plant and the main transmission pipe to that plant. It also had to develop various management and maintenance programs. However, government lawyers wrote in the new agreement that the city “has failed to achieve significant progress.” 

There are about 215 known locations in need of repair in Jackson’s wastewater transmission system, according to the court filing. Between March 2020 and February 2022, the city reported 460 sanitary sewer overflows, which together released more than 111 million gallons of untreated or under-treated wastewater. 

The agreement seeks to ensure that Jackson meets its responsibilities under the federal Clean Water Act and state law, Chris Wells, director of the Mississippi Dept. of Environmental Quality, said in a statement. 

Under New Management 

Under the deal, Henifin would have authority to implement capital improvement projects to the sewer system and execute other necessary efforts. Like the drinking water system, the wastewater system would operate under JXN Water Inc., an entity Henifin formed last year for the work. 

Operating through JXN has “huge advantages,” Henifin says. He abides by the spirit of public procurement by seeking competing quotes but is still able to act like a private entity and move much faster than the city could. JXN is using a find-and-fix repair approach with time and material contracts to keep the process quick and efficient, Henifin adds.

“We have folks working on the water system everywhere right now, and we’ll turn that same process loose on the sewers,” he says.

JXN has contracted with national engineering firms, including Stantec and HDR Inc., to help manage the repairs. Jacobs also was hired to operate Jackson’s two surface water treatment plants and its well system. Texas-based Rangeline is handling some repairs, such as for the 48-in.-dia. line Henifin showed the judge, with local contractors handling the rest. 

So far, they have repaired more than 200 leaks, Henifin says. They also discovered and reopened about 90 valves throughout the distribution system that were partially or fully closed, which Henifin says has helped stabilize water pressure. The plan is to ultimately replace more than 100 miles of small-diameter pipes plus any inoperative valves. Henifin says that he plans to find efficiencies in repairing both the water and wastewater systems, such as simultaneously replacing sewer lines and rehabilitating manholes on streets where waterline replacements are done. 

The team has also built its own GIS, asset management and work order tracking systems, and hired a call center contractor to handle reports of leaks and other customer contacts. 

“Applying those lessons we’ve learned and the systems we’ve put in place to deal with the water system will give us a big jump on the sewer system,” Henifin says. 

JXN is funding the projects from several sources. It now is installing new water meters to fix the city’s broken billing system. In December, Congress appropriated $600 million for Jackson’s water infrastructure, and EPA awarded the first $115 million of that funding last month. Henifin says JXN has a three-year plan for the federal money, some of which can also be applied to sewer projects. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has $125 million available for improvements to city water and sewer systems, and Henifin says he’s working on sourcing the local share of funding. 

The future of Jackson’s water and sewer systems beyond JXN’s three-year budget is still unclear. 

Once repairs are all largely under contract or under design, Henifin says he hopes to begin planning the transition to whatever entity will take over long term operation of the systems. But the most important thing is making sure the city does not experience a repeat of last year’s crisis. 

“Having tens of thousands of customers that went weeks with just no water—you can’t shower, you can’t wash, you can’t flush,” Henifin says. "So, no water at all for weeks on end, is not normal. So that is really our goal, to hit the pressure piece first to make sure we keep everybody with pressurized meters and plenty of access to water.”