What went wrong and what now: City officials recap Atlanta water crisis

Nearly 900 businesses have applied for financial aid through the city’s small business recovery fund.
In this iron image, crews are spotted continuing to work on a broken main on West Peachtree Street at 11th Street in Midtown on Monday afternoon, the fourth day of the crisis’s beginning.
(Miguel Martinez / AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

In this iron image, crews are spotted continuing to work on a broken main on West Peachtree Street at 11th Street in Midtown on Monday afternoon, the fourth day of the crisis’s beginning. (Miguel Martinez / AJC)

A month after a series of severe water main breaks left thousands of residents without drinking water, city officials are still working to figure out what exactly went wrong and, more importantly, how to prevent another massive outage from occurring.

Department heads filed into the City Council chamber on Tuesday to recap the water crisis and provide an update on short-term and long-term solutions to managing Atlanta’s water infrastructure that dates back to the 1860s. The city’s system serves nearly 1.2 million people across the city per day, with lines that stretch some 2,750 miles.

“There are pipes out there that are 100 years old — there are ones that are even older than that in some cases,” said Peter Aman, the city’s Chief Strategy Officer. “This is a problem a long time in the making.”

The incident forced residents under a boil water advisory for days and shuttered businesses that had no water at all. Nearly 900 small businesses applied for financial aid through the city’s recently established recovery fund aimed to help owners and employees recoup their losses.

Both current and previous mayoral administrations have been keenly aware of the system’s vulnerabilities. But reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that a majority of the watershed department’s time and money has been dedicated to sewer system projects without addressing brewing problems with Atlanta’s water pipes.

Hundreds of ruptures in the water system happen every year — their regularity is cited by officials as a reason the city did not sound the alarm quickly on the first break on Joseph E. Boone Boulevard that happened on May 31.

From January 2022 to date, 960 water main breaks have occurred across the city — 176 this year, according to officials.

“We’re starting to see a decline in our water main breaks,” said LaChandra Burks, chief operating officer for the city. “Will we ever get to a point where this number is zero? Absolutely not.”

“But as much work as we can do to make these numbers continue to go down, the better off we will be,” she said.

Atlanta officials have received harsh criticism for the city’s handling of the breaks. Dickens’ administration was slammed for a lack of communication to residents while he was in Memphis at a fundraiser for his reelection bid.

More than 15 different departments and six executive officers were involved in the emergency response, said Asher Morris, the city’s deputy director of emergency preparedness. That included the distribution of 192,000 water bottles.

But beefing up the system to prevent another crisis presents an enormous challenge. Although older pipes are more susceptible to breaks, environmental strains and level of usage can also factor in to how long pipes can hold without issue. And as the city grows, redevelopment and construction projects also dictate when and what areas can undergo pipe replacement efforts.

The city has enlisted federal help to spot existing problems before they come to a head. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is slated to take on a $1 million study of Atlanta’s water lines. The review is expected to take 18 months.

A special advisory committee has also been formed with city leaders like former Mayor Shirley Franklin and top experts from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Metro Atlanta Chamber to produce recommendations over two years.

“When you think about the time it has taken us to get in this situation, the overall timeline to replace the parts of the system that need to be replaced is in the decades,” Aman said.

But council members expressed concern with the long timelines and lack of immediate fixes for problems that could erupt at any moment.

“The public will certainly think 18 months and 24 months is a long time to be flying blind in terms of things we should be doing or could be doing in the interim,” council member Alex Wan said.

Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Al Wiggins said the department is adding two key staff positions — infrastructure and water resource planners — implementing new software and utilizing artificial intelligence to help detect leaks or breaks.

Another lingering question is from where the money to fix the water infrastructure will come. Atlanta voters in May backed another round of the penny sales tax which will help some. But officials have said they will need to explore local, state and federal funding sources.

“We don’t have enough money to do it today,” said council member Antonio Lewis, chair of the utilities committee.