Memphis utility lifts boil-water advisory after 5 days following deep freeze that burst pipes

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FILE - Memphis Light Gas & Water makes repairs to a broken water main in north Memphis, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. Memphis' water company lifted a boil-water advisory for more than 600,000 people on Tuesday, Jan. 23, five days after the precaution was put in place due to freezing temperatures that caused pipes to break throughout the southern city. (AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht, File)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Memphis' water company lifted a boil-water advisory for more than 600,000 people Tuesday that was in place for five days due to freezing temperatures that caused pipes to break throughout the southern city.

Memphis Light, Gas and Water said water quality tests have met state and federal standards, and home and business customers no longer will be asked to boil water for three minutes before drinking it or using it to brush their teeth and prepare food.

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The utility issued the notice on Friday after snowfall and sub-freezing temperatures caused pipes in homes and water mains to burst, leading to low water pressure that could have allowed harmful bacteria to contaminate the water supply.

It was the third time in the last three years that a winter storm prompted a boil-water advisory.

Memphis was the largest, but not the only, water system in Tennessee to experience problems from the unusually cold weather, which has caused dozens of deaths around the U.S. this month, many involving hypothermia or road accidents. The Tennessee Department of Health reported 36 weather-related fatalities across the state as of Tuesday.

More than two dozen water systems were under boil water notices and 19 counties were reporting operational issues with their water utilities, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency has said.

Water infrastructure in the South is not built for heavy snow, large ice accumulations and days of subfreezing temperatures, said Sarah Houston, executive director of Protect Our Aquifer.

“Our water lines are not buried beneath the frost line. They’re not insulated. And, they’re old,” she said. “If we had building codes like up North, they bury the lines deeper. Everyone’s plumbing is in the center of the house. Everything is insulated.”

Meanwhile, in rural Tipton County east of Memphis, residents of the town of Mason still had no running water on Tuesday after losing the service last week. The town's fire department said there was no timetable for water restoration.

Annie Christmas Cocke, a 36-year-old real estate agent, lives in Mason with her husband, two young sons, their dog Cricket and a collection of goats and horses. They lost all water service on Jan. 16.

Cocke and her family had stockpiled gallons of water because Mason, northeast of Memphis, has lost water service in the past, and she wanted to be ready. She has also traveled to the homes of family and friends who have water, to fill up containers.

“It’s been very difficult,” she said. “Due to the snow, no stores had water either. Luckily, I was prepared, but I didn’t know it was going to be this ... It’s been a mess.”

Mason has had a history of financial mismanagement, including charges of official misconduct against former city leaders, Cocke noted.

“This is due to years and years of misuse of funds and not using our tax dollars to do the necessary maintenance and improvements,” she said.

Justin Hanson served two terms as mayor of the Tipton County city of Covington, from 2014 to 2022. Covington has not been placed under a boil water advisory, so he has let Cocke come to his house to refill water containers.

Hanson said leaders of rural governments must prioritize investment in infrastructure. State funds can be accessed to help with infrastructure maintenance, with a minimal local match, he said.

Generally, infrastructure problems don’t develop overnight, and they can’t be fixed overnight, Hanson said.

“You either pay now and make the investment now, and stay ahead of any looming problems, or you pay a lot more later in repair,” Hanson said.

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