Earlier this week, Jackson, Mississippi made national news due to a report that shortages had caused a city of 150,000 to be without household water. However, those headlines are misleading. The water troubles in Jackson have been going on for years in the capitol city of the Southern state; it’s nothing new to residents.
On August 24, many parts of Mississippi – including Jackson – received between eight and twelve inches of rain after a particularly hot and dry summer in the South. The deluge caused flash flooding from Hinds and Rankin County (where Jackson is located) to Lauderdale County in East Mississippi. Roads washed out in Newton County, about an hour east of Jackson. The Pearl River, which begins in East Mississippi and flows through Neshoba, Leake, Rankin, and Hinds County, where it then flows along the border of Mississippi and Louisiana until it flows into the Mississippi River. This river was expected to crest Monday at just over 36 feet (flood stage is 28 feet); Governor Tate Reeves had declared a state of emergency ahead of the expected cresting.
On Monday, the Pearl River crested at 35.5 feet, and the flood waters caused pumps at the main water treatment plant in Jackson to fail. Many citizens within Jackson were already under a boil-water notice; when the failure took place, water slowed down to a trickle. This is the onus for Governor Reeves’ statement that there wasn’t enough water to flush toilets. There wasn’t a shortage to blame; the failure of the antiquated pumps caused the water to come out of Jackson taps at a trickle.
Residents were told not to even brush their teeth with what did come out of the tap, if anything, due to possible contamination.
So, with a major river next door – one that has already reached flood stage once before this summer – why would the headlines read that Jackson residents had no water due to a shortage.
According to the Mississippi for Public Policy’s Douglas Carswell, Jackson leadership would prefer people believe that flooding had caused the calamity. Carswell writes: “Jackson’s mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, said the water treatment facility had been ‘challenged, as it relates to these flood levels.”
Carswell pointed to the ability of Jackson’s nearby cities – Madison, Flowood, and Clinton – to provide clean water in the midst of flash floods, then he presents the facts – a lack of accountability and decades of neglect have led to the water system issues in Jackson.
Carswell says that “underinvestment” is the chief cause of the lack of running water in Jackson (even the Capitol building is without running water). Carswell points out that there has not been a lack of money with which to operate the water system.
In 2017, Jackson’s water billing collected $61 million in revenue with expenditures of $54 million. Yet, by 2022, the revenue collected is only expected to be $40 million – nearly $20 million less in only five years.
Why is the revenue so far in the red? Carswell points to the commissioning of Seimens to create a new billing system for the city of Jackson. Part of the contract with Seimens involved upgraded the “dilapidated water infrastructure” of the city. Things did not go as planned, and work wasn’t completed. In the end, the city ended up suing Seimens – and winning $89 million. Only $14 million of those winnings went to work on the city’s water management system, however.
The truth of the matter is Jackson’s water management system has had issues since the 1940s. In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency warned city officials that they had serious work to do regarding the infrastructure of the water system in order to provide quality water to residents. In 2020, the EPA once again warned city leaders – including the current mayor – regarding the lead pipes still in place in the city’s water infrastructure. In 2021, the city issued more boil-water notices than it did not.
In 2022, flooding of the Pearl River was simply too much for the antiquated system, and, two days after the river crested, crews are still working to get the pumps back online.
Governor Tate Reeves has spearheaded supplying bottled water to residents, and the federal government has expressed some interest in helping the city get the water system updated. Congressman Bennie Thompson, who largely represents the Mississippi Delta and Jackson, has said in order for the federal government to get involved, “the city (has) to come up with a plan.”
City leaders in Jackson must not only come up with a plan, but they must do so soon. What once was a beautiful city is now rife with violent crime, poverty, and now, a lack of clean water. No, there is no shortage of water in Jackson, MS – there is a lack of leadership to once and for all fix the problem.