By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Mississippi’s drinking water supply improved overall since last year based on a trio of indicators published recently by the state Department of Health.
The agency annually ranks each of its roughly 1,200 public water systems based on technical, managerial and financial capacities. Scores range from 0-5 with 5 being the best.
Systems statewide averaged a 4.2 this year, up about a tenth of a point from last year. Roughly one in three of them got perfect scores. Twenty-five earned scores of 1 or less.
Destination Mobile Home Park in Harrison County scored the only zero.
In Northeast Mississippi, about one in six systems got perfect scores. Four earned 1 or less, with Burleson Mobile Home Park ranking at the bottom with a 0.67.
The previously embattled North Lee County Water Association improved from a 3 last year to a 4.33 this year.
“We have been doing this since 2008, and we take pride in the fact the water systems have definitely taken the information we give them in these capacity assessment inspections and have continued to work to improve their scores,” said Melissa Parker, the department’s director of environmental health.
Mobile home parks fare worse
State inspectors check compliance with a host of best practices: Does the system keep a maintenance log book? Does it track water loss? Is all its equipment in place and functioning properly? Does it perform regular pumping tests? Does it have written operating policies? Has it developed a long-range plan? Is it in compliance with state regulations? Does it regularly inspect its elevated tanks? Has it filed financial reports with the Secretary of State? Is it financially able to make improvements?
The Environmental Protection Agency mandates the state perform the inspections and file an annual report. But it doesn’t require water systems to achieve perfect scores. They can consistently fail with little consequence.
Some do just that. Burleson Mobile Home Park in Lee County has scored 1 or less every year since 2008. Same for Scafidis Wheel Inn & Trailer Park in Hancock County, Bluff Creek Mobile Home Park in Jackson County, Liberty Road Trailer Park in Pearl River, and Apple Valley Trailer Park in Harrison County, as well as a few others.
It’s no surprise mobile home parks tend to get the worst scores. Parker said small, privately owned systems such as theirs have less incentive to comply because they’re ineligible for some of the grants tied to higher scores. They often also lack the resources to make improvements or track paperwork.
Most systems do want to improve. For them, the Department of Health funds technical assistance providers who work with low-scoring agencies to boost their numbers.
Among the most recent turnarounds was the city of Ripley in Tippah County, which had raised its score from a 2 last year to a 4.67 this year.
“The city of Ripley had three significant deficiencies in 2011,” Parker said. “Its treatment process wasn’t functioning properly. They didn’t have equipment in place and functioning properly at the time of the survey. The log book wasn’t being kept up properly, and water loss wasn’t being tracked.”
The state sent Debbie Luther with Community Resource Group to help. For one year, Luther worked with the city’s water department to implement new procedures and policies, produce and maintain accurate paperwork, and make facilities improvements.
Luther credits the staff and Ripley Mayor Chris Marsalis for readily accepting her recommendations; not all water systems do.
“We work with a lot of systems all over the state,” she said. “We can provide them with the best resources, but that system has to be on board, as well as make those changes. Sometimes they’ve been reluctant and sometimes even more reluctant.”
Record-keeping usually poses the biggest challenge for water systems, which may operate ethically and produce great water but lack any proof of such, Luther said. Proof is key to passing inspection.
That was part of what dinged Ripley last year.
“A lot of what we improved on had to do with timely filing of reports and forms,” Marsalis said. “The previous year when the auditor came was a bad time for the city. The director of the water department had resigned and a new guy had come in. Nobody knew exactly where everything was.”
It’s a different system now, he said.
Also different is the North Lee County Water Association, which one year ago was plagued by scandal and the resignations of its manager and entire board of directors.
Its six systems had scored an average of 3 last year. This year, under new management, it earned an average of 4.33. Board President Ken Clemons, who took office after the shake-up, said he’s aiming for a perfect score next year.
One of the biggest rural water associations in Northeast Mississippi, North Lee serves some 4,400 customers throughout Lee County. Many told the Daily Journal at an annual meeting Oct. 4 that water quality seems better, as does customer service.
“We’ve been impressed with the strides they’ve made and know they will continue to improve,” Parker said of North Lee. “They’ve got the folks in there now who are very committed to make it a stellar water system.”
Note about the PDF attached to this story: The annual report contains an error. Five water systems in Lee County were listed twice (Natchez Trace Parkway; North Lee – Barnes Crossing; North Lee – Birmingham Rd; North Lee – Cedar Hill; and Turner Water & Sewer). The first set of numbers for these systems is correct. The second set is from last year and should be disregarded.