The water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, was decades in the making

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

“Until it’s fixed, we don’t have reliable running water at scale,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said Tuesday, in an announcement that activated the National Guard and declared a state of emergency. “The city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, flush toilets and meet other critical needs.”

The state health department warned that tap water is not even safe to brush teeth with or give to pets. Jackson residents were previously advised to boil all water before drinking for the past month.

Recent flooding, operational failures and staffing shortages at the treatment plant – and decades of infrastructure decay have led to an indefinite interruption in the supply of safe tap water to Jackson customers. The governor called it a “health threat.”

“This is a very different situation than a boil water notice, which is also a serious situation that the people of Jackson have become tragically numb to,” Reeves said at a news conference Monday. “Until it’s fixed, we don’t have reliable running water at scale. The city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, flush toilets and meet other critical needs.

Why is Jackson without safe drinking water?

Hinds County Emergency Management Deputy Director of Operations Tracy Funchess, right, and Operations Coordinator Luke Chenout wade through floodwaters in northeast Jackson, Miss., Monday, Aug. 29, 2022, while checking water levels. The floods affected a number of neighborhoods that are close to the Pearl River.

Rogelio V. Solis–AP

The OB Curtis treatment plant is the facility that serves Jackson and relies on backup pumps that have limited water pressure since the main pumps failed last month. The Pearl River, which runs through the city, began flooding last weekend and damaged an already vulnerable water treatment plant, causing Jackson residents to lose most of their water pressure.

The facility has ongoing understaffing issues, resulting in a significant lack of employees who are qualified to operate the plant. Part of the governor’s emergency plan will include immediately recruiting additional skilled operators and splitting the cost of doing so with the city.

Reeves before that declared a state of emergency on Saturday as the Pearl River flooded due to heavy storms. Meteorologists have since reported that the flooding is not as severe as it has been in recent years, but rainwater entering the reservoir is contaminating the water supply and that the flooding is exacerbating the plant’s existing structural fragility. The flooding is expected to recede, but damage to the plant still needs to be repaired to restore access to water.

How long has this been going on?

Jackson has had a boil water advisory since July. Two weeks ago, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said at least one of the main OB Curtis pumps would be fixed by the end of this week, but that hasn’t happened.

Lifting the state-mandated boil water notice involves collecting water samples from 120 locations across the city and getting clear results in two days. The city has failed that process several times since July because the samples were cloudy and more likely to contain disease-causing pathogens.

“It’s an issue we work on every day — not just when there’s a boil water advisory, not just when there’s low water pressure. This is something we have gone to the highest level of government to talk about,” Lumumba told press event earlier this month. “I literally talked to the president himself about the funds that the federal government is trying to send to the city of Jackson and what is available.”

Jackson struggles with safe access to water for decades and lacked the funding to effect change. Mayors and city council members have called for a 1940 renovation of Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported. In the 1970s and again in 2020, the EPA warned that the city needed to get serious about updating its infrastructure to improve water quality. The 2020 Report stressed lead pipes, faulty monitoring equipment and insufficient staffing. Years of neglect piled up and entered In 2021 alone, there were dozens of reports of water boiling in the city due to the old, fragile water system.

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

How does this affect the community?

The city maintains a water supply for residents, but has strict guidelines for boiling water before drinking or sticking to bottled water. The state health department did a list of dos and don’ts for Jackson residents, which includes not consuming water directly from the tap in any form — not even giving it to pets or making ice cubes. Water should be boiled before cooking, washing dishes or brushing teeth. Residents are encouraged to conserve water and boil it for at least three minutes.

In response to the water crisis, all Jackson Public Schools have transitioned to virtual learning. Although unsafe drinking water has historically plagued the city, with some areas at much greater risk than others. The current crisis is city-wide, and all residents are making sacrifices at home, in businesses, and in schools.

Last week, Lumumba said Jackson would need about $200 million to fix the city’s water system. Mississippi currently has a $75 million budget to improve water systems, the Associated Press reports.

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