Mississippi’s capital’s water woes are widespread

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s capital is struggling with a near-collapse 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 left without water flowing from their faucets.

The problems began days after torrential rain fell in central Mississippi, altering the quality of raw water entering Jackson’s treatment plants. This slowed down the treatment process, depleted reserves in water reservoirs and caused a sharp drop in pressure.

When water pressure drops, there’s a chance untreated groundwater can enter the water system through broken pipes, prompting customers to boil water to kill potentially harmful bacteria.

But even before the rain, officials said some water pumps had failed and a treatment plant was using backup pumps. Jackson had already been under a month-long boil notice because the state health department had found murky water that could make people sick.

WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF WATER PROBLEMS IN JACKSON?

Jackson is the largest city in one of the poorest states in the US

The city has a shrinking tax base resulting 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 conditions of poverty.

Like many American cities, Jackson struggles with aging infrastructure with water lines breaking or collapsing. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat in a Republican-led state, said the city’s water problems stem from decades of delayed maintenance.

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 collected water in buckets to flush toilets. Similar problems occurred on a smaller scale earlier this year.

Jackson often has boil alerts due to loss of pressure or other issues that can contaminate the water. Some of the orders are in effect for just a few days, while others last weeks. Some only affect certain neighborhoods, usually due to broken pipes in the area. Others affect all customers in the water system.

The state health department placed Jackson’s entire water system under a boil alert in late July due to murky water quality. That order remains in place, and officials have not said when it might end. Although boiling water is meant to protect people’s health, it also makes everyday tasks more time-consuming.

WHERE DOES JACKSON’S WATER GET?

Most of Jackson’s water comes from the Ross Barnett Reservoir, which is located just northeast of the city and is fed by the Pearl River. The town also gets some water from a well. In addition, hospitals and some government agencies have dug their own wells to have water available in case of problems with the city’s system.

The water system serves about 150,000 residents in Jackson and about 11,500 residents of one suburb, Byram, as well as businesses and government offices. About 80 percent of customers had little or no water Wednesday morning at the worst of the current outage, and all customers had low pressure, a Jackson city spokesman said.

WHERE IS JACKSON’S WATER PROCESSED?

Jackson has two water treatment plants. The newest and largest is the OB 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 working last month, so the plant was running 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. It produced 20 million gallons (75,708 kiloliters) on Thursday, according to the governor’s office. The oldest water treatment plant, JH 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 produced 20.5 million gallons (77,601 kiloliters).

ARE ENOUGH PEOPLE WORKING AT JACKSON’S WATER FACILITIES?

Understaffing is a serious problem.

The mayor said the city has struggled to find and hire 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 the number of certified operators needed to be fully staffed. The city engineer said in November that the staffing shortages were so severe that the city would have to close one of its plants if one more operator left. The documents also showed operators were working long 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 a fire in Curtis’ electrical panel in April 2021 resulted in all five pumps being unavailable for use, causing low water pressure. An inspection six months later found that the pumps remained out of order.

In 2015, routine testing found higher-than-acceptable levels of lead in Jackson water samples, and the city continues to issue public notices about water quality that does not meet minimum standards.

In 2016, the state Department of Health found inadequate application of water treatment chemicals due to a failed corrosion control system at the Curtis plant. The EPA asked the city to fix this problem. In 2017, the city started the erosion control treatment facility.

A water quality notice issued in July said the majority of samples tested showed lead levels “below the EPA’s action level.” But it also listed precautions from the state health department, including that infant formula should only be made with filtered or bottled water and that children under 5 should be screened for lead and have a blood test.

WHAT OTHER WATER PROBLEMS DOES JACKSON HAVE?

Jackson has also struggled with sewage.

In 2012, the city signed a consent decree with the EPA and the US 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 nearly 45 million gallons (170,344 kiloliters) of untreated sewage to be released into the environment between December and March.

WHAT WILL IT COST TO FIX JACKSON’S WATER PROBLEMS?

The mayor said repairing Jackson’s water system could cost billions of dollars, and that’s far more than the city can afford.

An infrastructure bill Biden signed last year is designed to address problems like Jackson’s, but it’s unclear how much money Mississippi’s capital will receive.

The Mississippi Legislature appropriated $3 million this year for repairs at Jackson’s Fewell plant. The Legislature also put $400 million of federal pandemic aid 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 on Thursday.

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