Twenty years ago, Macon’s water system operated out of one large building on the banks of the Ocmulgee River.
Macon Water Authority board members already had plans in the works to expand that facility. But flooding from Tropical Storm Alberto that engulfed the plant under several feet of water washed away those plans.
“It rained for three days straight,” said Dale Moorehead, an operator at the current Frank Amerson Water Treatment Plant who also worked at the old facility. “The river was rising, and I can remember them calling to ask what we were going to do.
“The water was already 3 feet deep at the plant, and all we could do was shut the plant down and wait for the river to recede.”
Though residents went three weeks without drinkable water from the tap after Alberto dissipated, the storm proved serendipitous in one regard, said Tony Rojas, executive director of the Macon Water Authority.
Years earlier, the authority had begun to build a reservoir for Macon that would come to be known as Javors Lucas Lake, named for a longtime MWA board member. The reservoir was necessary because the old treatment plant off North Pierce Avenue drew directly from the Ocmulgee itself, and the plant was operating over capacity just trying to meet the daily needs of Bibb County residents.
“The water authority needed more than 35 million gallons a day” for the city’s water needs, Rojas said. “They were violating their permit by producing 50 million gallons a day -- more than their permit.”
Since the old plant was drawing more water from the river than it was supposed to, the authority decided to create the reservoir on land in Jones County near Town Creek.
The reservoir opened Javors Lucas Lake earlier in 1994, with the expectations that the lake would fill in three to five years.
Thanks to Alberto, it was full in three days.
Authority members knew that expanding the facilities at the old treatment plant could be a problem in the event of another flood. In addition, Rojas said, the original treatment plant had been built around 1896, with improvements and upgrades during the ensuing decades. Much of the old facility was antiquated in terms of technology.
So the authority explored the idea of building a new water treatment facility on the vast campus near the new lake, complete with the most modern technology.
With the facilities located on much higher ground than the lake or the river, the chances of flooding the new facility are virtually nil, Rojas said.
The authority began building the new water treatment plant in 1994. The plant cost about $116 million to design and build, and about 95 percent of that money came from the federal and state emergency management agencies. The rest of the costs, about $5.8 million, came from the authority.
Named in honor of Amerson, the longtime MWA chairman, the plant opened on July 10, 2000, just after the sixth anniversary of the flood.
Since the plant now uses Javors Lucas Lake instead of the river, it has 5.8 billion gallons from which to draw, serving 155,000 customers in Macon, as well as providing water and sewage services in Monroe and Jones counties and the city of Byron.
Gary McCoy, the plant’s director of water treatment, used to work for Atlanta’s water system, which has the capacity to store about three days’ worth of water.
By comparison, Macon has about four months’ worth of water in reserve, thanks to the plant.
“When we have visitors come here to tour, they can’t believe we have a four-month supply,” he said. “It’s unheard of to have a four-month supply.”
McCoy said the plant’s designers took into account the consequences of another possible storm of Alberto’s intensity in creating the new plant. Not only is there the significant level of reserves, but there’s also enough generator capacity to run the plant for two-and-a-half days in the event of a long outage.
Rojas said the plant has the capacity to produce 60 million gallons a day if necessary, and that could be expanded to 90 million gallons if another pump and other equipment are installed. For now, the MWA has focused on re-enforcing and upgrading the system’s infrastructure.
“This (facility) was built with the mindset that it can be expanded,” Rojas said. “We could add another pump at the river intake. The space is already reserved. ... This has not been put together piecemeal. There was a heck of a lot of foresight. Other communities don’t have these advantages.”
Rojas said the plant allows water rates to stay low for customers, and that the money the authority collects is put back into the facility.
The operations are spread among several buildings across the campus -- operations and offices in one building, generators in another, filtration in another, and so forth.
Jocelyn Hunt, the MWA’s assistant manager of water operations, also worked at the old plant and noted other advantages of the current facility. For example, she said, most water plants may only separate the chemicals used to treat water by dividers in a room. In Macon, an entire building is devoted just to the chemicals, and each chemical has its own room.
The plant gave Macon the title of the nation’s “Best Tasting Water” in 2009. McCoy said that at other facilities, water that comes from a river contains certain algae that has to be treated, which can cause a bad taste or odor. McCoy said that hasn’t been a problem with Macon’s water since the new facility has been open.
Perhaps the plant’s biggest contributions to the midstate, however, are still to come.
Having access to a large water supply can be a crucial factor for a company looking to relocate, Rojas said, and Macon’s water facilities tend to get the attention of these businesses.
“We’re in a position for economic development,” he said. “With the (old) plant, we were in a position where we’d run out of water, which is not a position for growth. The value (of the current plant) is that it brings economic prosperity and attracts more business.
“We have prospects who need a lot of water, and simply because of this plant, they know there’s a sustainable source of water in the future. Water scarcity is not an issue with us.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.