Water crisis puts spotlight on city council rejection of MLGW rate increase requests

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis remains under a boil water advisory, leaving people looking for bottled water and wondering how things got to where they are currently.

Pipe breaks to the city’s aging water infrastructure are being pointed to as the culprit, but local leaders said it might have been avoided if the city council had acted years ago.

Well before the storm that blanketed the region with record cold and snow, MLGW came to Memphis City Council seeking rate increases, saying, at the time, they would go toward needed improvements in aging infrastructure.

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In 2018, the first time executives asked the council it be allowed to increase its rates, Councilman Martavius Jones, Super District 8-3, voted “yes.”

“Four, maybe five years ago, there we recommendations that we address our infrastructure issues,” Jones said in an interview Tuesday. “Everything can’t get fixed overnight, but I tend to think the magnitude of what we’re facing may not have been as great if we would have made some of these improvements.”

The infrastructure fixes were finally being addressed at the onset of the storm that forced the city and parts of Shelby County into a boil water advisory. MLG&W started a five-year service improvement plan, with goals that included updates on water wells and water pumping stations, finally set to be updated after getting approval from the city council in Jan. 2020.

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“Not doing anything to replace it, much less provide adequate maintenance -- I think that we end up with results that we have that we’re facing today,” Jones said.

And that, said Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, District 7, is why the current situation exists. Infrastructure at both the city and county level is in dire need of immediate upgrade, Sawyer said.

“We are sitting on a dinosaur here. … That’s not just MLGW; that’s our roads (and) our bus system,” Sawyer said.

Memphis City Council, which has partial oversight of MLGW, vows to take on the water infrastructure issue head-on, ensuring upgrades stay on track.