HELENA WEST-HELENA Brian Chilson

Thousands of residents in Helena-West Helena have been without water for a week due to major issues with the city’s water infrastructure, and it’s likely the issues will persist.

Chris Harris, deputy director at the Arkansas Rural Water Association, explained the situation to Helena-West Helena’s city council members and Mayor Christopher Franklin at a meeting on Jan. 23. What Harris described was bleak.

Advertisement

Helena-West Helena, which used to be two separate cities in Phillips County in east Arkansas, has two water systems. The system on the West Helena side is down, and it could stay in critical condition for at least two weeks, Harris said. Typically, a well is good for about 20 years, but the city’s wells are far beyond their expected lifespans. In Helena-West Helena the wells were drilled in the 1960s and 1970s, making them about 40 years past expiration.

Four of the wells in West Helena are working at about 30% capacity, Harris said.

Advertisement

Water outages plagued Helena-West Helena just last summer. In June 2023, residents were left without water for weeks after a computer glitch shut down the system. The Arkansas National Guard also dispatched potable water tanks over the summer while temperatures reached severe highs. 

The ideal long-term solution to the city’s problem is drilling new wells, but that’s estimated to be a multimillion-dollar project and Helena-West Helena doesn’t have that kind of money on deck.

Advertisement

On top of the critical issues with the wells, the underground water system is like a spider web, Harris said, and that makes it difficult to isolate parts of the system to send water to specific areas. Valves within the water treatment facility aren’t working well, and staff members sometimes have to hammer them closed, Harris said. Leaks are also a major problem. The city’s pumps often have to work overtime because they can’t keep up with the amount of water that’s lost underground instead of making it to customers’ homes. In short: pretty much everything is bad with the Helena-West Helena water system.

Kelsey Riley, who has lived in the city since 2011, said her home is tapped into the Helena water system side and she hasn’t run out of water. A five-minute drive away, though, no water is coming out of the faucets.

Advertisement

To provide immediate relief, staff members with the Arkansas Rural Water Association are fixing leaks in the water system daily. The crews are working to get water pressure back in full at all residents’ homes as soon as possible, Harris said.

The Arkansas National Guard also set up potable water trucks in Helena-West Helena on Jan. 18 at the Phillips County Office of Emergency Management. The trucks were scheduled to leave town on Jan. 25 but the National Guard announced it would continue “until no longer needed and will end once reliable water service has returned.” As of Jan. 24, nearly 6,000 gallons of water had been distributed to residents in Helena-West Helena.

Advertisement

Within the last week, various organizations and institutions have donated pallets of water. Together for Hope, Arkansas, a faith-based organization in Helena-West Helena that Riley is involved in, launched an online fundraiser to collect donations for water purchases. Nearly $3,000 of the $4,000 goal has been met.

Closures around Helena-West Helena are a mixed bag. Because of the split water system, some institutions are stuck without water and others can function as normal. The Helena-West Helena Central High School was built on the West Helena side of town, but its water is hooked up to the Helena side. So while the school can function normally, the Wendy’s restaurant less than a quarter mile away can’t.

Advertisement

The water at the KIPP Delta Public Schools is out, and classes were relocated to new locations so students could return to school on Jan. 25. Students have been out for winter weather and water outages. 

The only hospital in the town, the Helena Regional Medical Center, was still operating with water as of Jan. 25. 

At a meeting on Jan. 23, the mayor focused on the importance of not assigning blame for the problem, but rather tackling it head on and finding solutions.

“Whatever I need to do from my desk, let’s do it,” Franklin said.

Advertisement

At the meeting, the city council accepted a proposal for an engineering services agreement, though the total cost for determining where to put a new well in Helena-West Helena, and the cost for construction, remains unknown. A timeline for fixes isn’t established yet, either.

Drilling a well requires a lot of planning, an engineer told city officials. It’s important to put the new well near the old ones, but not too close that it becomes a structural issue underground. The city also needs to own the land where the future well would be established, and the land around it needs to be properly protected. These administrative issues, as well as possible supply chain delays, make the timeline ambiguous. Add in applying for grant opportunities and securing the funding for the project, and the timeline gets even more complicated.

While the water system in Helena-West Helena is undoubtedly broken, the message was clear at the Jan. 23 meeting that the problems are solvable.

People looking for other donation opportunities can give to an effort organized by the University of Arkansas’s Division of Agriculture. Bottled water, water filters, body wipes, buckets, bleach and LifeStraws are all needed. In Little Rock, donations can be dropped off at the Cooperative Extension Service office at 2301 S. University Avenue from 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Invest in the future of great journalism in Arkansas

Join the ranks of the 63,000 Facebook followers, 58,000 Twitter followers, 35,000 Arkansas blog followers, and 70,000 daily email blasts who know that the Arkansas Times is the go-to source for tough, determined, and feisty journalism that holds the powerful accountable. For 50 years, our progressive, alternative newspaper in Little Rock has been on the front lines of the fight for truth, and with your support, we can do even more. By subscribing or donating to the Arkansas Times, you'll not only have access to all of our articles, but you'll also be helping us hire more writers and expand our coverage. Don't miss out on the opportunity to make a difference with your subscription or donation to the Arkansas Times today.

Previous article Two new literacy tutoring programs approved by legislators Next article Jacksonville dispensary request pulled from commission agenda