Some Mobile-area residents received firsthand knowledge related to water service Monday, as the first of three classes began at the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System’s Citizens Water Academy.
Attendees at Monday’s inaugural meeting received information about one of the area’s only surface-water reservoirs at Big Creek Lake, as well as a history of the service and a look at its operations and assets.
“We built this program based on you being ambassadors for us to the public,” MAWSS Assistant Director Bud McCrory told attendees. “We want to do this two or three times per year.”
MAWSS spokeswoman Monica Allen said the service was pleased with the number of applicants, as more than 50 individuals showed interest in the program. Allen said they limited attendance to about 25, with plans to do at least one more academy this year.
“We were looking for community leaders with involvement in a variety of institutions,” Allen said.
The idea is to have individuals gain a better grasp of the challenges MAWSS faces as it looks to update expensive infrastructure throughout the system. The program, which includes tours of the system’s wastewater treatment plants, includes up to 15 hours of instruction, Allen said.
“We want people to understand these things,” she explained.
Debi Foster, executive director of the Peninsula of Mobile nonprofit organization, signed up for the classes to learn more about the water system.
“I like it,” she said. “I think it’s a good opportunity to learn things, I think, for me personally that I thought I already knew, but that I didn’t. I look forward to learning more.”
McCrory spent his presentation time quizzing attendees and giving out prizes for correct answers. Through the interaction, those in attendance learned MAWSS charges $3.28 per thousand gallons of water used by its customers. A deal, McCrory said, if you consider the price of bottled water.
“How much is one 16-ounce bottle of water? Maybe you get it for a dollar or $2,” he said. “For $3.28 you can purchase 1,000 gallons of it from us. The taste of [MAWSS water] can compare to any bottle of water. I’m telling you, it’s not much different.”
McCrory also told attendees MAWSS has more than 28,000 manholes and 12,554 hydrants. The maintenance and operation of those hydrants factored into the Insurance Service Office rating of 1 the city of Mobile achieved late last year, the highest rating available. Roughly 40 percent of the score was based on hydrant and water service operation, McCrory said. He noted the color at the top of MAWSS hydrants corresponds to the amount of water pressure at a particular hydrant.
Attendees also learned how flushable wipes, grease and tree roots all help cause sanitary sewer overflows because they contribute to pipes getting clogged.
Grease clogs specifically can be a challenge to eradicate. Some that “build up over time” grow as large as the pipe itself and can’t be removed even with a hose blasting them with 2,000 pounds of water pressure per square inch.
McCrory also said water and sewer pipes in Mobile have been made of a variety of materials over the decades, including clay, wood, steel and PVC. A few years back, he said, workers on a project on Dauphin Street discovered a wooden log pipe being connected with a steel ring.
Underground pipes are the largest and most expensive asset MAWSS has, Matt Sanders told attendees. In all, there are more than 2,200 miles of water line and 3,250 miles of sewer lines crisscrossing the county.
“If we were to lay every pipe … end to end it would go from Mobile to just about the city limits of Anchorage, Alaska,” he said. “Typically, people drive right over them and don’t even think about what’s under there. There’s $3 billion you don’t see that we own and operate.”
Then there’s the infrastructure customers can see, Sanders said. MAWSS owns and operates three elevated tanks, which can be costly to maintain.
“There’s a lot of maintenance required on the elevated tanks,” Sanders said. “It costs $1 million to paint a 2-million-gallon tank.”
He said MAWSS paints one tank each year.
The utility operates 13 booster stations and 194 lift stations, and has a total of 100,000 lateral connections.
“We don’t have that many customers,” Sanders said. “A lot of those are capped.”
MAWSS operates two stormwater attenuation tanks, or SWATs, which are used during heavy rain events when rainwater overwhelms the system. The utility is also constructing a stormwater attenuation basin, or SWAB, which will be completed in the spring. Located near Dog River, the SWAB is designed to take in as much as 20 million gallons impacted by stormwater. It was a $8.1 million project, Sanders said.
“We had a lot of property in that area and do something a little different than the tanks,” he said.
The utility has two wastewater treatment plants, both of which are near Mobile River, the discharge point for treated sewage. The largest of the two plants is located on McDuffie Island. Although it’s close to the water, MAWSS Director Charles Hyland said the facility has never flooded. During Hurricane Katrina water rose to the facility’s fenceline.
The academy, which is provided at no cost to attendees, will continue Wednesday, Jan. 30, and Tuesday, Feb. 12.
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