OPINION | EDITORIAL: Fixing water system in PB took a village

Pine Bluff's water system has been "hardened," according to Tony Penna, head of Liberty Utilities' local system.

The word jumped out, given the problems that a "soft" system provided the Pine Bluff area three years ago -- if that's the term water professionals use for an inadequate operation.

Perhaps the best indication that things are improved is that the entire town is not in the middle of a water calamity, a la 2021. As is hard to forget, temps got down to zero at one point but highs stayed below freezing and lows sounded more like shoe sizes than actual temperatures -- all for days on end.

The end result was a chaotic mess, and it required outside intervention. At one point, the Pine Bluff water system, as operated by Liberty, got the attention of Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and the state Public Service Commission.

The utility's line on the storm and the aftermath, which included the near-total meltdown of the water system, was that oh, that dang mother nature was at fault, and then there were all those broken and leaking pipes not dealt with by home and business owners, as in not really Liberty's fault.

The state's findings were somewhat different, with significant blame put on the utility for not investing enough in its Pine Bluff-area water system. The state gave Liberty a list of nearly two dozen demands to address in the coming years, and one was to place more emphasis on its infrastructure -- hence, the "hardening."

The mere presence of a Tony Penna, who works locally, is a testament to the state's demands. He wasn't here during the 2021 crisis, but he has overseen what he said has been "tens of millions of dollars" in improvements to the area's water system, all condensed into that one word: hardening.

So let's not blithely go along and think our water provider, out of the goodness of its heart, has been investing in the local water system. It took an angry village to get here, one that included finger-pointing state and several local officials, including Mayor Shirley Washington, who, during this current crisis, said she was calling Liberty daily when the forecast showed the temperatures were going way south. A call was also said to have been put in to the state, just in case aerial support was needed again.

This isn't to diminish what Liberty has done -- from their improved infrastructure to their new emphasis on better communications -- all that is appreciated. And while things could still get ugly, for now, that new harder system seems to be holding. In the end, that's quite a relief so kudos all around, including to you, the end user, for conserving and doing what you can to keep pipes from freezing in the first place.

On that note, leave your taps running tonight. The low is 12.

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