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Water service restored to rural Tennessee town a week after winter storm, sub-freezing temperatures

MASON, Tenn. (AP) — The majority of residents in the rural Tennessee town of Mason had water services restored Wednesday, a week after freezing temperatures broke pipes and caused leaks in the decades-old, neglected water system.

Mayor Eddie Noeman told The Associated Press that 75% of the predominantly Black west Tennessee town of 1,300 people has had water restored, with the rest expected to be able to use their faucets by Wednesday night or Thursday.

A winter storm brought sub-freezing temperatures and snow to Mason and the rest of Tennessee last week. The cold caused the town’s pipes to freeze over and break, creating leaks that lowered water pressure and left many residents without running water. The cold exposed major problems with a water system that dates back to the 1950s, the mayor said.

Noeman said no money had been invested in the town’s water system since 2010.

Residents filled up jugs and buckets at the homes of relatives and friends who live in the area but did not lose water service. Many either bought water or picked some up at giveaways by the fire department and local churches.

“Everybody came together for the town of Mason,” Noeman said. “We’ve had these problems for a very long time.”

Larry Camper, 69, still did not have water restored to his home as of Wednesday afternoon, so he filled plastic jugs with water from a spigot outside City Hall. Camper said also received water from the mayor and melted snow that stayed on the ground for days after the storm. He said he stockpiled water before the storm because Mason has previously had outages.

“It should have been fixed long before this,” he said.

Mason has been beset by problems with infrastructure and financial mismanagement for years. Two former employees were charged with taking town funds, and the state comptroller's office has said the town had thousands of dollars in missing credit card expenditures.

In 2022, the state of Tennessee moved to take over Mason’s finances. But officials later reached an agreement that allowed the local government to retain control of its spending.

Noeman said the town had been losing six million gallons of water a year to leaks, but 45 leaks have been repaired since he took office a year ago. A Missouri-based company took over the water system in October, and no problems had been reported until last week’s storm, he said.

The state has given Mason $1.9 million to improve its water system. Along with the town’s 1,300 people, Mason also provides water to residents who live nearby in unincorporated areas of Tipton County.

“Some people called me very, very, very upset about it,” Noeman said of the water outage. “But when I explained to them what the situation was and how we reached this point, people understood.”

More than two dozen water systems in Tennessee were placed under boil-water notices during the recent cold snap. Nineteen counties in the state reported operational issues with their water utilities, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said.

In Memphis, residents spent five days boiling water for drinking, brushing their teeth and preparing food as repair crews worked to fix broken pipes, which led to low water pressure that can allow harmful bacteria to contaminate the water supply. The boil-water advisory was lifted Tuesday. Memphis Light, Gas and Water said water quality tests have met state and federal standards.

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

“Our water lines are not buried beneath the frost line. They’re not insulated. And they’re old,” she said.

The unusually cold weather 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.

Virginia Rivers, a former vice mayor of Mason who now serves as an alderwoman, said she got running water restored on Wednesday.

“I do understand that the fact that the system is old, and I do understand the frustration of the people because I’m affected by it, too,” she said.

“It’s hard. It’s not easy. But we’re surviving."