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The city of Jackson was already struggling with a deteriorating water system long before the last rains cut off access drinking water for more than 150,000 people in the capital of Mississippi.
For years, residents of the majority black city have endured everything from service disruptions to Boil water notice to concerns about contaminants such as lead and E.coli bacteria, thanks to failures to upgrade Jackson’s aging infrastructure.
With the city now under a state of emergency, authorities are scrambling to distribute bottled water to tens of thousands of people in a city where around 1 in 4 people live in poverty. Amid the budding response, officials have sent mixed signals about how long it will take to restore service. City officials said it could take “days,” but Gov. Tate Reeves said it was unclear exactly how long it would take.
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The current crisis began last week, when days of torrential rains caused the Pearl River, which runs through Jackson, to swell and then crest about 35 feet high, according to the National Weather Service. In an emergency order issued Monday, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the flooding was “creating water treatment issues” at the city’s main water treatment facility, the OB Curtis water plant.
Yet even before last week’s rains, concerns about Jackson’s water system were well documented, and the city was already under a state-issued boil water advisory in the months before the flood.
“It was almost certain that Jackson would start going out of running water within the next few weeks or months if something didn’t materially improve,” Reeves told reporters this week.
“Until it’s fixed, that means we don’t have reliable running water on a large scale,” Reeves said. “That means the city can’t produce enough water to fight fires, flush toilets reliably and meet other critical needs.”
A similar crisis played out last year
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Through Jackson, the situation is an unwelcome replay of the winter 2021, when deadly storms blanketed the state in ice and nearly decimated the city’s water supply system. Drains and water pipes burst across the city, leaving tens of thousands of people without water, some for three weeks.
The crisis came at a time when the city continued to face widespread concerns about the safety of its drinking water. In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order warning that Jackson’s water supply system posed “imminent and substantial danger” to residents and could contain dangerous contaminants such as E.coli. Four years earlier, state health officials alerted the city to high levels of lead in its drinking water.
At the root of the challenges in Jackson are decades of underinvestment in a sprawling water system made up of about 1,500 miles of water pipes, some of which are more than 100 years old. In 2013, the city sought to overhaul the system as part of a $90 million contract with Siemens to upgrade sewer lines, water treatment plants and install a new sewer billing system for residents.
But the deal brought a myriad of new problems for the city, including the installation of faulty water meters that measured water usage in gallons instead of cubic feet. In the years since installation, some residents have received exorbitant bills for months of water use at a time, while others have not been billed at all. At one point, city officials advised residents to just pay what they thought they owed, but unpaid bills would eventually strain Jackson’s ability to tackle the system. The city eventually sued Siemens and several local contractors for $450 billion in damages, reaching a settlement of $89.8 million in 2020.
Fixing the system could cost billions
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The city has also not been able to fully clear its service backlog, in part because a shrinking population has left it with a tax base about 20% smaller today than it was. in 1980.
At the same time, it has struggled to secure public funding for infrastructure. Last year, at least two bills to help raise funds for water system repairs died in the Legislature. And in June 2020, Reeves, a Republican, vetoed bipartisan legislation designed to help residents with overdue water bills, which, in turn, would have allowed the city to collect water revenue. water she desperately needed.
In vetoing the bill, the governor acknowledged that residents “had been overbilled in the past,” but said the legislation would allow “politicians to say that individuals are not responsible for paying their bills.” ‘water”. Reeves also said there were “no safeguards in place” to ensure that the aid would only go to the “poor or needy”.
Mayor Lumumba estimated that upgrading the city’s infrastructure could cost up to $2 billion. Mississippi received $75 million from the federal infrastructure bill signed by President Biden last year for water and sewer needs, but that money is for the entire state, not Jackson alone.