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The Jackson, Mississippi water crisis and America's crumbling water system

Madonna Manor maintenance supervisor Lamar Jackson left, stacks bottled water brought by Mac Epps of Mississippi Move, as part of the supply efforts by city councilman and State Rep. De'Keither Stamps to a senior residence in west Jackson, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo)
Madonna Manor maintenance supervisor Lamar Jackson left, stacks bottled water brought by Mac Epps of Mississippi Move, as part of the supply efforts by city councilman and State Rep. De'Keither Stamps to a senior residence in west Jackson, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo)

A version of this show previously aired on March 26, 2021.

Jackson, Mississippi are still boiling their drinking water after the latest breakdown to their water treatment plant.

Jackson is just one of many American communities relying on a century old water supply system.

For a month, residents of Jackson, Mississippi went without clean running water. The city’s mayor says the problem’s decades in the making. That makes Jackson a lesson for the entire country.

Today, On Point: America’s fragile water infrastructure – and how to fix it.

Guests

Donna Ladd, founding editor of the Mississippi Free Press and Jackson Free Press. (@DonnerKay)

Aaron Packman, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University.

Catherine Coleman-Flowers, environmental and climate justice activist. 2020 MacArthur Fellow for Environmental Health Advocacy. (@CathFlowers)

Also Featured

Harvey Johnson, Jr., former mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.

Nancy Sylvester, director of Global Learning Connection Center, a day care for children of teenage mothers.

Transcript: Highlights From The Show’s Open

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: There’s a rule of thumb for human survival, called the rule of threes. You can only survive three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Well, that middle one, that you can’t survive without water for more than three days, water is that essential. And don’t the people of Jackson, Mississippi, know it.

CHAKRABARTI: Patricia Anderson has been boiling and bleaching the water coming out of her kitchen tap since the beginning of August. Torrential rain and severe flooding of the Pearl River overwhelmed Jackson’s water treatment plant, whose main pumps had already broken down in July.

Residents haven’t had potable water for more than six weeks now. Earlier this month, many people spent several days without any water coming out of their faucets. The work has been done to shore up the treatment plant.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said this week that the city remains under a boil water advisory.

MAYOR LUMUMBA: We’re optimistic that we’re looking at a matter of days, not weeks, before we can expect the boil water notice to be lifted.

CHAKRABARTI: Time and again, Jackson residents have been asked to live without reliable, clean water. The antiquated treatment system has needed upgrades for decades, and the number of failures has recently been mounting. In 2015 and again in 2021, the city’s water had unusually high levels of lead.

Ask yourself honestly, how long could you tolerate not having reliable drinking water in your town in America in 2022? How long would you tolerate it? How long do you think you’d have to? Do you think you’d have to deal with water shutdowns so often that buckets and boil water advisories become a constant way of life? Really? Ask yourself. And if your answer is, I would not be willing to, nor would I have to deal with that kind of threat to my survival for long. Well, then ask yourself, why do the citizens of Jackson, Mississippi, have to suffer through it again and again and again? What’s your answer to that?

This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Jackson is Mississippi’s largest city and its state capital. The median household income is about $40,000. That’s $25,000 less than the median income nationwide. More than 150,000 people live in Jackson, and more than 80% of the residents are Black. So back to that question, Why do Jackson residents have to suffer a lack of reliable drinking water? Mississippi Congressman Democrat Bennie Thompson has his answer.

BENNIE THOMPSON: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. I don’t know of any white-run city that’s a capital city that’s being treated like Jackson, Mississippi, is.

CHAKRABARTI: Thompson there on MSNBC. In an April 2022 print interview with Mississippi Today, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba gave the duck a name: paternalistic and racist. He said, quote, The state legislature is racist. Is that what you all want to hear? I wasn’t holding that back. It is what it is. Prove me wrong. I dare you.’ This past Sunday on CBS, Lumumba added.

LUMUMBA: I’m not backing down from any characterizations that I have made. However, I think that this is a time to focus on the solutions for our residents.

TATE REEVES: Cities run their water departments.

CHAKRABARTI: This is Mississippi’s Republican Governor, Tate Reeves, speaking last month. He rejects the accusations of racism and instead says the jurisdictional lines are clear, as is where he believes the responsibility for Jackson’s water woes lies.

REEVES: The state is not asked to fix the water system in Madison. They’re not asked to fix the water system in Flowood. I live in the city. I am frustrated, just like everyone else is. We’re going to continue to put pressure on the leaders of the city of Jackson to do their job.

CHAKRABARTI: However, Mississippi state government also has a direct impact on Jackson’s long term ability to fix its infrastructure. In 2021, the city sought to increase its sales tax by 1% in order to fund infrastructure improvements. That proposal had to go through the state legislature where it was killed. House Speaker Republican Philip Gunn explained to TV station WAPT, why.

PHILIP GUNN: It creates a precedent, if you will, that that may be a dangerous area to go to, as far as other cities around the state wanting to do the same thing. And we may get into a situation where the tax burden just gets too great.

CHAKRABARTI: This month, Governor Tate Reeves pointed to another problem, the fact that Jackson’s water treatment plant has long been understaffed. An investigation by local TV station WLBT found that for years, operators had been sending dire warnings to the EPA, including e-mails describing workers having to pull 24 hour shifts because the treatment plant had just two class A certified water operators. It’s supposed to have 12. Reeves also said he wants to consider every possible long term solution to Jackson’s water crisis.

REEVES: We’ve never received a real plan from Jackson on how to improve their water system so that the state could consider funding it.

CHAKRABARTI: Jackson Mayor Lumumba rejects that, saying that the city has a plan that it’s submitted to the EPA. But that the plan is hidden behind a court ordered confidentiality agreement. It’s worth noting, though, that the nonprofit news organization Mississippi Today reports that it has not been able to confirm that such an agreement exists. Governor Tate Reeves also opened the door to another option.

REEVES: I’m open to all options. Privatization is on the table.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s an option Mayor Lumumba totally opposes, Representative Bennie Thompson says, in other cases, cities are receiving needed funds such as COVID relief and federal infrastructure dollars.

THOMPSON: And so what’s happening here with Jackson now is the mayor of Jackson is struggling because the resources that he so desperately need, and the 150,000 plus individuals in the city who also need it, that money is going to the suburbs.

CHAKRABARTI: American infrastructure is the physical manifestation of generations of social and financial choices. It is crumbling not just for one reason, but for many. … The water crisis does seem never ending in Jackson. So today, we’re going to rebroadcast an episode of the show we did back in March of last year.

We wanted to understand then, in as much detail as possible, how Jackson got here and what the rest of the nation needs to learn from the city’s endless challenges. Lessons that bear repeating. We started with Donna Ladd, editor of the Mississippi Free Press. She lives in Jackson, and she described how often the city’s water system breaks down.

DONNA LADD: Water main breaks happen here continually. Boil water notices are a thing. They come out so often that it’s hard to report them all. Now, they’re not usually citywide. What is our typical situation is that parts of the system are so outdated. So that means that different parts of the city will end up with boil water wards. I think we kind of live in a perpetual state of not sure what’s in our water.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, there has been lots of coverage about what has happened in Jackson. And I want to hear from you, Donna, as a lifetime resident there. Like you said, like just uncertainty around water is a thing there. That seems to be an intolerable thing. What’s the cause of it?

LADD: Well, to use words that my reporter Nick Judin used, it’s a complex system collapse. And when we say that, it’s not just the technological part of the system, it’s the fact that we’ve known this for years. There was a big 2013 study that warned about all of these things, that there’s a systemic breakdown in the willingness to actually do something about it.

And the city itself, you know, like so many cities in the U.S., because of flight, and disinvestment and losing the tax base. But we still have a huge landmass of city with outdated pipes under them. So we can’t pay, we can’t afford to keep it up. So as we’re finding more and more, it’s a systemic breakdown of federal, state and local municipal areas being able to work together to solve problems together.

CHAKRABARTI: But, you know, I mean, I think it was fairly recently the lieutenant governor of the state of Mississippi, Delbert Hosemann, criticized Jackson’s political leadership and he said, quote, ‘You remember during Kane Ditto’s administration, he did repair work on water and sewer. So what happened since then?’ Referring to, I believe, Jackson’s last white mayor. Is that right?

LADD: That’s right. And that was in answer to a question from our reporter Nick. And Nick recognized immediately, because he’s from here, too. Recognized, hey, that’s the last white mayor, what? And he was texting me. And so we followed that up very quickly. And it really kind of enabled us to start talking about this long time systemic racism and attitudes toward our Black leaders. You know, Nick talked to Harvey Johnson, who I think you’re talking to today and who was our first Black mayor. And he had followed Kane Ditto.

And under his administration, they found $200 million to put into a water system problem that they had inherited, because it’s been going on, as you said, for decades. You know, there are pipes that are a century old. But it’s just this attitude, you know, one way Nick put it to me, is that we just think that a lot of these of our statewide politicians who happen to be white just unplug from what’s happening, from the reality of what’s happening in Jackson in their capital city, and just don’t feel responsible for the people who live here.

Interview Highlights

What has the city of Jackson done over the past couple of decades to attend to this known problem?

Donna Ladd: “I think the best way to break it down is to say staunching the bleeding, Band-Aid approach as far as the city itself is concerned. I mean, I can’t … sit here and blame a city that is as beleaguered as our city has been for not having the resources to be able to overhaul the water system.

“Some of the numbers that we’ve come up with, the least amount that they need is $600 million. And then, as you said earlier, it keeps climbing from there. I mean, if the money’s not here, the money’s not here. So what that means is that the state should be at the same table with the city, side by side. This is the capital city.

“You know, the state is no stronger than its capital city. That’s absurd. And so they should be side by side with the city saying, OK, how are we going to work together to get federal help? What is it that we can do? How can we help? But the opposite happens. You know, one of the things our governor said just recently was, Well, you know, Jackson residents should pay their water bill, so they should go collect the water bill.

“Well, there’s a whole issue around faulty billing that we’ve been through. But beyond that, it’s like the city tried to get the state, and the state legislature passed legislation to allow payment plans for the water bill. And the governor vetoed it last year. And so that’s like working against us, and so the money doesn’t come in. But the water billing money is not enough to pay for what we’re talking about here.

“And we have to work with the federal government, as we’ve discovered. A lot of the disinvestment and helping municipal areas across the country came during the ’80s and particularly the Reagan era. Which was kind of pulling back on financial assistance, for environmental improvements, those kinds of things. And that is one of those perfect storm moments where it got so much worse afterwards as far as not being able to pay for things. And so when you’ve got everybody working against each other, or ignoring each other, then it’s a terrible situation.”

We keep using this phrase ‘crumbling.’ Is that a fair description of some of these water systems?

Aaron Packman: “Most of the infrastructure we have in the eastern half of the United States is quite old. Just for point of comparison, I live in Chicago. We’re still using the water intakes from Lake Michigan that were built in the 1960s. And in places like Philadelphia, the water infrastructure goes back 300 years. So clearly infrastructure that age needs a lot of maintenance to work properly. And it’s very hard to do, because most of the pipes are underground and inaccessible. So we definitely have an issue with its aging, deteriorating water infrastructure in a lot of the country.”

Where should early targets be for the federal government if it’s going to pump a whole lot of money into infrastructure?

Catherine Coleman-Flowers: “First of all, those people that never got the infrastructure should get it first. So, I mean, in this conversation we were talking about municipalities when most of the United States is rural. And most of them are not in municipalities. So should they still be denied access to infrastructure, especially water and wastewater infrastructure? And we’re seeing in some places, I’m actually doing a project right now with The Guardian where we are documenting wastewater problems throughout the United States, it’s not just a one situation. It’s not just Jackson, Mississippi. It’s not just even Detroit, which is having a lot of issues and water shut offs.

“And if we shut off the water, you shut off sanitation. And I think the other thing that we have to do is make sure that the policy makers, if we’re going to have solutions, we cannot separate wastewater from water. Because a lot of people in their mind, because they can flush the toilets, they assume that everybody else in the U.S. can do the same thing. That’s the reason why we were able to do a study to show that there was hookworm in Lowndes County. And it’s probably in other areas, too. We just haven’t looked for it yet. So that’s the first thing we need to do, give it to places that don’t have it.

“We also need to identify where those places are. There are no accurate numbers on how many people do not have wastewater sanitation, because that was taken off the census in the 1990s. So if we’re going to make decisions based on what numbers we have, we’re still going to leave a lot of people behind. And a lot of these people are in rural communities, or they are poor people or people of color. And we have to unpack and unfold that.

“And I think we can’t talk about infrastructure, and where the dollars are going or where they have gone, unless we deal with the social justice issues around those decisions. Because to people who are not like me, they see it just as simply a political decision. But socially, it has an impact on people that look like me. And we need to make sure that our voices are heard and that part of the solution is getting those dollars to those communities that have been left behind.”

Aaron Packman: “This is a rare opportunity, because you don’t usually have these problems get elevated to the presidential level and a commitment to make an investment. So I would advocate for modernization of our wastewater treatment facilities, a lot of which used 50-year-old plus technology. And also fixing some of the hard problems with the water distribution system and also the wastewater system, the things that are less accessible, that often get ignored and are not fully maintained. So this will be expensive, but it will make a big difference.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.