JACKSON, Miss. – Mississippi's capital city is struggling with the near collapse of its water system, prompting emergency declarations from President Joe Biden and Gov. Tate Reeves.
Jackson has dangerously low water pressure this week, and many of the city's 150,000 residents have been without water flowing from their faucets.
Problems started days after torrential rain fell in central Mississippi, altering the quality of the raw water entering Jackson's treatment plants. That slowed the treatment process, depleted supplies in water tanks and caused a precipitous drop in pressure.
When water pressure drops, there’s a possibility that untreated groundwater can enter the water system through cracked pipes, so customers are told to boil water to kill potentially harmful bacteria.
But even before the rainfall, officials said some water pumps had failed and a treatment plant was using backup pumps. Jackson had already been under a boil-water notice for a month because the state health department had found cloudy water that could make people ill.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF WATER PROBLEMS IN JACKSON?
Jackson is the largest city in one of the poorest states in the U.S.
The city has a shrinking tax base that resulted from white flight, which began about a decade after public schools were integrated in 1970. Jackson’s population is more than 80% Black, and about 25% of its residents live in poverty.
Like many American cities, Jackson struggles with aging infrastructure with water lines that crack or collapse. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat in a Republican-led state, said the city's water problems come from decades of deferred maintenance.
Some equipment froze at Jackson's main water treatment plant during a cold snap in early 2020, leaving thousands of customers with dangerously low water pressure or no water at all. The National Guard helped distribute drinking water. People gathered water in buckets to flush toilets. Similar problems happened on a smaller scale earlier this year.
Jackson frequently has boil-water notices because of loss of pressure or other problems that can contaminate the water. Some of the mandates are in place for only a few days, while others last weeks. Some only affect specific neighborhoods, usually because of broken pipes in the area. Others affect all customers on the water system.
The state health department put the entire Jackson water system under a boil-water notice in late July because of a cloudy quality to the water. That mandate remains in effect, and officials have not indicated when it might end. Although boiling the water is intended to protect people's health, it also makes everyday tasks more time consuming.
WHERE DOES JACKSON GET ITS WATER?
Most of Jackson's water comes from the Ross Barnett Reservoir, which is just northeast of the city and is fed by the Pearl River. The city also takes some water from a well. In addition, hospitals and some state agencies have drilled their own wells to have water available in case of problems with the city system.
The water system serves about 150,000 residents in Jackson and about 11,500 residents of a suburb, Byram, plus businesses and government offices. About 80% of customers had little or no water Wednesday morning at the worst part of the current outage, and all customers had low pressure, a Jackson city spokeswoman said.
WHERE DOES JACKSON PROCESS ITS WATER?
Jackson has two water treatment plants. The newer and larger one is the O.B. Curtis plant near the reservoir. This plant has been the main source of the most recent problems. The governor said two pumps at Curtis stopped operating within the past month, so the plant had been operating on backup pumps. A temporary pump was installed Wednesday.
The Curtis plant is authorized to produce up to 50 million gallons (189,271 kiloliters) of water per day. According to the governor's office, it was producing 20 million gallons (75,708 kiloliters) Thursday. The older water treatment plant, J.H. Fewell, is authorized to produce 20 million gallons (75,708 kiloliters) of water per day, with the flexibility to go up to 30 million gallons (113,562 kiloliters). On Thursday, it was producing 20.5 million gallons (77,601 kiloliters).
DO ENOUGH PEOPLE WORK AT JACKSON'S WATER PLANTS?
Understaffing is a serious problem.
The mayor said the city has had difficulty finding and hiring enough Class A certified water operators. Federal law requires at least one such operator to be on duty at each water treatment plant at all times.
WLBT-TV requested emails from the city and found that the Curtis plant had one-sixth of the number of certified operators it needed to be fully staffed. The city engineer said in November that staff shortages were so severe that the city would have to shut down one of its plants if one more operator left. The documents also showed that operators were working massive amounts of overtime.
WHAT ABOUT WATER QUALITY?
The Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice in January that Jackson's system violates the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA noted that an April 2021 fire in the electrical panel at Curtis had caused all five pumps to be unavailable for service, causing low water pressure. An inspection six months later found the pumps remained out of service.
In 2015, routine testing found higher than acceptable lead levels in Jackson water samples, and the city continues to publish public notices about water quality not meeting minimum standards.
In 2016, the state Health Department found an inadequate application of water treatment chemicals because of a failing corrosion control system at the Curtis plant. The EPA required the city to correct this problem. In 2017, the city began installation of corrosion control treatment.
A water quality notice published in July said the majority of tested samples showed lead levels “below the action level set by the EPA." But it also listed precautions from the state Health Department, including that baby formula should be made only with filtered or bottled water and that children younger than 5 should have lead screening and blood testing.
WHAT OTHER WATER PROBLEMS DOES JACKSON HAVE?
Jackson has also struggled with wastewater.
In 2012, the city entered into a consent decree with the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality laws. The city remains out of compliance.
In late April, the city submitted a report to federal regulators showing that sewer failures caused the release of nearly 45 million gallons (170,344 kiloliters) of untreated wastewater into the environment between December and March.
WHAT WILL IT COST TO FIX JACKSON'S WATER PROBLEMS?
The mayor said fixing Jackson's water system could cost billions of dollars, and that is far beyond what the city can afford.
An infrastructure bill that Biden signed into law last year is designed to address problems like Jackson’s, but it’s unclear how much money the Mississippi capital will receive.
The Mississippi Legislature this year allocated $3 million for repairs at Jackson's Fewell water plant. The Legislature also put $400 million of federal pandemic relief money into a water infrastructure fund, and Jackson could apply for part of that. Cities or counties are required to match the grant money with local money. The application period opened Thursday.