Jackson, Mississippi Water Crisis Was Decades in the Making

Some 180,000 residents in and around Jackson, Miss.—the state capital and largest city—have little or no sanitary water for the foreseeable future after the city’s primary water treatment plant failed, the governor announced Tuesday.

“Until it is fixed, we do not have reliable running water at scale,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves stated Tuesday in an announcement which activated the National Guard, and declared a State of Emergency. “The city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to flush toilets and to meet other critical needs.”

State health officials have warned that tap water may not be safe for pets or to use to brush their teeth. Jackson residents are advised to boil water every month.

Recent flooding, operational failures and understaffing at the treatment plant—and decades-long infrastructure decay, have culminated in an indefinite failure in the supply of safe tap water to Jackson water customers. The governor called it a “health threat.”

“This is a very different situation from a boil water notice, which is also a serious situation which residents of Jackson have become tragically numb to,” Reeves said at a press event on Monday. “Until it is fixed, we do not have reliable running water at scale. The city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to flush toilets and to meet other critical needs.”

Jackson Miss. Without safe drinking water

Tracy Funches (Hinds County Emergency Management Operations deputy Director), and Luke Chennault (operations coordinator) wade through floodwaters in northeast Jackson on Monday, August 29, 2022 as they test water levels. Many neighborhoods were affected by flooding, including those near the Pearl River.

Rogelio V. Solis–AP

O.B. O.B. The Pearl River, which runs through the city, began flooding this past weekend and damaged the already vulnerable treatment plant—causing the Jackson resident to lose most of their water pressure altogether.

Due to ongoing staffing shortages, the facility is currently operating with a severely shortfall of skilled workers. Part of the governor’s emergency plan will include recruiting additional qualified operators immediately, and splitting the cost of this with the city.

Reeves has previously declared a state of emergency on SaturdayAs a result, the Pearl River became flooded during severe storms. Since then, Meteorologists report that although the flooding has not been as severe in recent years rainwater entering the reservoir can contaminate the water supply. This also increases the structural fragility and vulnerability of the plant. Although the flooding should recede soon, water access to the plant will still need to be restored.

This has been going on for so long.

Since July, Jackson has been under a boil water notice. Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, the Mayor, said two weeks ago that at least one O.B. was being repaired. Curtis pumps would be fixed by the end of that week, but that didn’t happen.

To lift a boil-water order by the state, water samples must be taken from 120 locations in the city. The results will take two days to obtain. Since July, the city failed to complete this task multiple times because of cloudy samples that were likely to have disease-causing pathogens.

“This is an issue that we work on each and every day—not just when there’s a boil-water notice, not just when there’s low water pressure. This is something that we have gone to the highest level of government, in order to speak to,” Lumumba said at a press event earlier this month. “I have literally spoken to the president himself as to the funds that the federal government is attempting to send to the city of Jackson, and what is available.”

Jackson has been struggling with water access since the 1940s and lacks the funds to make improvements. Jackson mayors and councilors have called for repair since the 1940s. Clarion-Ledger reported. The EPA warned the city in the 1970s, and again in 2020 that it needed to upgrade its infrastructure for improved water quality. Lead pipes, poor monitoring equipment, insufficient staffing were highlighted by the 2020 report. The city’s old water system, which has been neglected for years, led to dozens of boil-water warnings in 2021.

Some researchers and columnists point to “white flight” for Jackson’s failing infrastructure and a subsequent lack of taxes and state funding that instead poured into developing neighboring predominantly white cities such as Flowood and Madison. More than 82% of Jackson’s population is Black and almost a quarter of residents live below the poverty line, a stark contrast to 1980 when over half of the city’s population was white.

What is the impact on the community?

The water service has been maintained in the city, but there is strong advice on whether to boil water first before using it or to use bottled water. A state health department provided guidance. a do’s and don’ts list for Jackson residents, which includes not consuming water directly from the tap in any form—not even to give to pets or make ice cubes. Boiling water is a good idea before you start cooking, cleaning dishes or brushing your teeth. Residents should conserve water, boil it for no less than three minutes and then drain the excess.

Jackson’s public schools switched to virtual learning in response to the recent water crisis. Although the problem of unsafe drinking water is a long-standing issue in Jackson, some parts are more at risk than others. All residents of the city are affected by this crisis.

Last week, Lumumba said that Jackson would need around $200 million to fix the city’s water system . According to the Associated Press, Mississippi has a $75 million statewide budget for water system improvements.

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