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Why don’t Jackson, Mississippi, residents have water?

Flooding exacerbated existing problems with water infrastructure in Jackson, Miss., leaving the city with more than 150,000 residents without potable water to drink. 

The most immediate cause of the problem was flooding from the city’s Pearl River that ran into the streets. This flooding caused issues at the city’s O.B. Curtis Water Plant on Monday

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) said in a Monday night press conference that the water treatment facility’s main pumps had been severely damaged, and that the facility was using smaller backup pumps. 

He said that some front-line workers tried to hold the system together, but that the system was expected to eventually fail. 

“That failure appears to have begun today,” Reeves said on Monday. 

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D) said in a Tuesday press conference that the issues were caused by “a lack of pressure in the system … that was complicated by the flood waters that we received.”

Ben Magbanua, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Mississippi State University, said that in general, maintaining pressure helps keep contaminants out of the water system. 

“One of the ways they keep contamination out of the distribution system is by maintaining a positive pressure so that water tends to flow out of it rather than into it, so when you have low pressure, that positive pressure isn’t maintained and contaminants can more regularly seep in.”

Reeves said Monday that the situation meant that the city can’t produce enough water to fight fires or reliably flush toilets. Reeves also urged the public not to drink the water coming from their pipes, saying it was likely to be untreated. 

Emergency water bottles were distributed to residents. 

The flooding may have been the most proximate source of problems, but issues with the city’s water system have been long-standing. 

In February 2021, a winter storm caused similar issues in the city, and some people were without water for weeks. The same water treatment plant’s equipment froze up at that time because of the cold weather. The city also experienced water issues in November

Even before that, in 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspectors found a host of issues in the city’s water system including: a lack of clarity in the water; leaks and line breaks in the city’s water distribution system; broken and uncalibrated monitoring equipment at the O.B. Curtis plant; and inadequate staffing at both that plant and the city’s J.H. Fewell treatment plant. 

The report also said that portions of the J.H. Fewell plant, which provides a smaller amount of the city’s water, are more than 100 years old and in a “general state of disrepair.”

The EPA further found that the city did not fully implement lead and copper monitoring requirements and also did not make efforts to replace its water service lines that are made from lead . There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, and lead exposure can damage children’s brains and nervous systems. 

In the Tuesday press conference, Lumumba described the city’s problems as long-standing. 

“This is a set of accumulated problems based on deferred maintenance that has not taken place over decades,” he said. 

The issues, in a predominantly Black community, mirror past crises in communities of color. Most notably, Flint, Mich., experienced elevated lead levels after its water source was switched to the Flint River and the water wasn’t adequately treated. 

Jackson was a majority white city in the first half of the 20th century, but by the 1980s, so-called white flight led to tens of thousands of white residents leaving for the suburbs.

The city, already located in one of the poorest states in the U.S., has seen its tax base dwindle and is far short of the revenues leaders say are necessary to fix outdated water infrastructure. 

While the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last November includes $459 million for water improvements throughout the state, Lumumba has said the city would need at least $2 billion to fix its water infrastructure.

Tags Climate change drinking water environmental justice Flint water crisis Jackson water crisis Mississippi Mississippi water woes Pearl River Flooding potable water Tate Reeves Tate Reeves

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