Severe Weather Delivers Infrastructure Stress

The lingering frigid temperatures that invaded Arkansas in mid-February marked the second weather-related blow endured by Helena-West Helena’s water system in as many years.

Like the Easter weekend storm of 2020 that took down much of the local power grid, the single-digit temperatures of Valentine’s Day week challenged the city’s ability to deliver water.

“When you have too much deferred maintenance, things start to burst and break,” said Mayor Kevin Smith. “Our biggest infrastructure issue is the deferred maintenance issue with the city water plants.”

A priority is to upgrade the water system’s emergency power capabilities to keep the water flowing regardless of severe weather events.

Smith said that according to estimates, about $1.9 million could trickle down to Helena as part of the latest round of federal stimulus funding targeting infrastructure.

“We could leverage that to $10 million,” he said. “We might be able to get there to address the water system’s most serious needs.”

This year’s winter storm stressed the Helena water system to the point that operation of the Helena Regional Medical Center was threatened.

The potential crisis came uncomfortably close to forcing the intervention of the fire department, which was poised with pumper trucks to provide temporary relief.

“We were literally within minutes of turning it on to provide water,” Smith said. “We came close to activating our evacuation plans for nursing homes and residential treatment centers.

“That’s a pretty traumatic thing, but we were able to bring another water pump online. If it had not been for outside parties coming to our rescue, it would have been a much worse outcome.”

In Clay County

The severe cold that challenged utility systems across the state four months ago forced a reboot of water service for the 3,100 residents of Corning. Tandem breaks in water mains on Feb. 16-17 prompted a 12-day boil order for the northeast Arkansas city.

“It snowballed,” Mayor Greg Ahrent said of the back-to-back pipeline breaks near the Corning water plant. “The big event was the loss of water pressure.”

Water conservation was the order of the day until the city system could be replenished and restored to normal operating conditions. In the meantime, make-do measures were employed to provide alternative water sources, and volunteers traveled door to door to check on needs.

The Arkansas Division of Emergency Management dispatched 2,000 gallons of fresh water through the Arkansas National Guard to help Corning residents.

Clay County Judge Mike Patterson helped make a slow trek over icy roads to pick up a large trailer load of bottled water at the Arkansas Foodbank in Little Rock and haul it back to Corning.

“Those people at the Foodbank were super nice helping us,” Patterson said.

Possible investment in the water system will be among the infrastructure items for consideration with the pending flow of federal stimulus funds.

“There will be some discussion there,” Ahrent said of an upcoming meeting of the Corning City Council. “Once it’s determined how much money will be coming, we’ll have a better idea on what we can do.”