Residents in Jackson, the majority-Black capital city of Mississippi, now have water coming out of their taps once again, but are still having to boil it before drinking, as they have had to intermittently for years.
It is a step forward from the situation last week, when floods overwhelmed the city’s dilapidated main water treatment plant and essentially interrupted water supply across the entire city, affecting more than 160,000 residents.
Even though emergency efforts have restored running water, questions linger over whether a more lasting solution will materialize. Some of the city’s pipes are roughly a century old, and Jackson is also the target of ongoing lawsuits from residents who say its old lead pipes poisoned them and stunted their growth as children.
The crisis has brought focus to America’s outdated water infrastructure, and whether it is fit for purpose amid climate crisis-related weather events of increasing severity. It has also heightened discussions about the role of systemic racism in water infrastructure crises affecting majority-Black cities across the country.
“This water system broke over several years and it would be inaccurate to claim it is totally solved in the matter of less than a week.” Mississippi’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, said in an update earlier this week. “There may be more bad days in the future. We have, however, reached a place where people in Jackson can trust that water will come out of the faucet, toilets can be flushed and fires can be put out.”
As of Friday, signs of progress were evident as children in Jackson’s public schools returned to their classrooms after spending last week at home learning virtually as they often did earlier in the pandemic.
Water quality testing is still in the preliminary stages, even as some residents continued to report coffee-coloured water in their taps. Once full testing commences, two days of successful testing at numerous sites across the city are needed for health officials to declare Jackson’s water safe to drink. But the emergency fixes are just patches on an ailing, aged system that could break at any time – as it did during a 2021 winter freeze that left residents without water for nearly a month.
Jackson’s persistent water problems make daily life hard for residents and business owners alike. That includes boil water notices that can last weeks or more. Before the most recent failure, John Tierre, who owns Johnny T’s Bistro & Blues in downtown Jackson, said his business was already losing thousands of dollars due to spending weeks under a boil water notice.
“First, you’re gonna have to start a couple hours early. That’s already labor in itself, whatever you’re paying per hour,” he told the Mississippi Free Press in late August. “You gotta get in and start boiling water for everything that you’re gonna be using in service. Not only do we have to boil water just to wash dishes, for the bar, for glasses, but there’s the $200 or $300 a day in ice purchases, canned sodas, bottled water, things of that nature.”
State officials are discussing a number of possible solutions for a permanent fix, including privatising Jackson’s water system. “Privatisation 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.
Privatising water infrastructure may well prove controversial. Jackson’s own recent experience with a private corporation proved disastrous for the city after it contracted with the German multinational conglomerate Siemens in 2010 to install water meters and oversee its water billing system. But Siemens’s system was faulty, and residents would go for months without receiving water bills, while others received enormous bills far exceeding their usage.
The deal cost the city tens of millions in unpaid water fees and prompted 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 gone toward improving the old water systems. “We have to make sure that we have a billing system in place that everyone who receives water receives a bill,” Governor Reeves told the Guardian.
Officials say Jackson needs more than $1bn to fix its underlying problems and prevent a repeat of the 2021 and 2022 crises. But in a city where residents often have to drive around the same potholes filled with old tires and orange traffic barrels for years, that kind of money is not easy to come by.
This week, federal and local officials who gathered in the beleaguered city said it needed to produce a plan for overhauling its water system so that the Mississippi and national governments can assess its needs and provide help. Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, told said that Jackson could be eligible for tens of millions in US government loans in addition to funds under Joe Biden’s recent infrastructure package, but “we need to see a plan that demonstrates how those resources will be spent and what they will be spent on.”
On 29 August, Mayor Lumumba vowed to appoint a “a full-scale committee of individuals that are working toward the execution and production of that plan”. As of 9 September, he still had not done so.
Though the water problems are becoming more acute as the infrastructure ages, the issue has bedevilled Jackson leaders for decades, often prompting complaints that state leaders were not doing enough to help their capital city. In an interview with the Guardian, the former Jackson mayor Harvey Johnson, who served from 1997 to 2005 and again from 2009 to 2013, warned that even a properly funded plan could take decades to execute.
“I think if you’re talking about the water system, obviously you need a plan that depicts what is required to make improvements to the system. And typically that’s over a 20-year period,” he said. “I think that’s sort of being lost in the whole discussion: none of this takes place over a short period of time.”