RResidents in Jackson, Mississippi’s predominantly black capital, now have tap water again, but still have to boil it before drinking, as they’ve had intermittently for years.
It’s a step up from last week’s situation, when floods inundated the city’s dilapidated main water treatment plant, essentially cutting off water supplies throughout the city, affecting more than 160,000 residents.
While emergency relief has restored running water, questions remain about whether a more sustainable solution will emerge. Some of the town’s pipes are about a century old, and Jackson is also the target of ongoing lawsuits from residents who say the old lead pipes poisoned them and stunted their growth as children.
The crisis has drawn attention to America’s aging water infrastructure and whether it is fit for purpose amid climate crisis-related weather events of increasing severity. It has also fueled discussions about the role of systemic racism in water infrastructure crises affecting the majority of black cities across the country.
“This water system has broken down over the course of several years and it would be incorrect to claim that it was completely dissolved in less than a week.” Mississippi Republican Governor Tate Reeves said so in an update earlier this week. “There may be more bad days in the future. However, we have reached a point where people in Jackson can rely on tap water, toilets to be flushed and fires to be extinguished.”
On Friday, signs of progress were visible as children in Jackson’s public schools returned to their classrooms after spending last week at home with virtual learning, as they often did before during the pandemic.
Water quality testing is still in the preliminary stages, even as some residents continued to report coffee colored water from their tap. Once full testing has begun, two days of successful testing at numerous city locations will be needed before health officials can declare Jackson’s water potable. But the emergency solutions are just patches on an ailing, outdated system that could break at any time — such as during a winter frost in 2021 that left residents without water for nearly a month.
Jackson’s persistent water problems make everyday life difficult for residents and business owners alike. This also applies to boiling water notifications that can last for weeks or more. Before the most recent failure, John Tierre, owner of Johnny T’s Bistro & Blues in downtown Jackson, said his company had already lost thousands of dollars because it had been under a boiling water warning for weeks.
“First, you have to start a few hours earlier. That’s work in itself, whatever you pay by the hour,” he told the Mississippi Free Press in late August. “You have to go in and start boiling water for whatever you’re going to use in the service. Not only do we have to boil water for washing dishes, for the bar, for glasses, but there’s also the $200 or $300 a day worth of ice cream purchases, canned soda, bottled water, things like that.”
State officials are discussing a number of possible solutions for a permanent solution, including the privatization of Jackson’s water system. “Privatization is on the table,” Governor Reeves said earlier this week. The city’s Democratic mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, has also discussed hiring private contractors to operate and maintain the water system.
Privatizing water infrastructure may prove controversial. Jackson’s own recent experience with a private company proved disastrous for the city after it signed a contract in 2010 with German multinational conglomerate Siemens to install water meters and oversee its water billing system. But Siemens’s system was faulty, and residents would not get a water bill for months, while others would receive huge bills far exceeding their consumption.
The deal cost the city tens of millions in unpaid water costs and sparked a lengthy lawsuit that recovered only a portion of what the city lost after legal fees. The debacle cost the city precious resources that could have been spent improving the old water systems. “We need to make sure we have a billing system that bills anyone who receives water,” Governor Reeves told The Guardian.
Officials say Jackson needs more than $1 billion to fix the underlying problems and avoid a repeat of the 2021 and 2022 crises. But in a city where residents often have to drive for years in the same pits full of old tires and orange traffic barrels, that kind of money is not easy to come by.
This week, federal and local officials gathered in the besieged city said they needed to prepare a plan for overhauling the water system so Mississippi and state governments can assess their needs and provide assistance. Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, said Jackson could qualify for tens of millions in US Treasuries in addition to funds under Joe Biden’s recent infrastructure package, but “we need to see a plan that shows how those funds will be spent and what they’re going to be spent on.” be issued.”
On August 29, Mayor Lumumba pledged to appoint a “full committee of individuals to work to implement and produce that plan”. By September 9, he still hadn’t done that.
Although water problems are becoming more acute as infrastructure ages, the problem has plagued Jackson’s leaders for decades, often leading to complaints that state leaders were not doing enough to help their capital. In an interview with the Guardian, former Jackson mayor Harvey Johnson, who served from 1997 to 2005 and again from 2009 to 2013, warned that even a well-funded plan could take decades to implement.
“If you’re talking about the water system, I think you obviously need a plan that says what it takes to improve the system. And usually that’s over a 20-year period,” he said. “I think that’s kind of lost in the whole discussion: none of this takes place in a short amount of time.”