Jackson’s water system may need billions in repairs. Federal infrastructure funds are not a quick fix.

JACKSON, Miss. — Residents of Mississippi’s capital city — which currently lacks safe drinking water from the tap and in some neighborhoods don’t have enough water pressure to flush toilets — had good reason to hope that last year’s ambitious $1 trillion federal infrastructure deal dollars would help.

President Joe Biden shared the city’s struggles while promoting the infrastructure bill in August 2021, saying, “Never again can we allow what happened in Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi.”

In a state where financial windfalls are rare, the federal package could be transformative for Jackson, which desperately needs funds to fix a fragile system in which sewer lines often break and residents regularly face outages and notices to boil their water. Mississippi is set to receive $429 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to fix its water and sewer systems over the next five years, mostly through loans, some of which are being forgiven, and grants provided through the Environmental Protection Agency.

But as the city remains in a state of emergency, it could face a long wait for some of those funds — and a battle for the city’s share. One of the two state agencies responsible for pushing back millions of dollars in federal infrastructure funds said it could be at least mid-to-late 2023 before any allocations are released. And Jackson won’t be the only one coming to the table. The money is meant to reach communities across the state.

Even if the state gave Jackson all the funds that Mississippi is going to receive, it wouldn’t be enough. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, said the price tag for overhauling the city’s water infrastructure could run into the billions. This is far in excess of the money available under the Infrastructure Act.

“We’re already in a life-or-death crisis,” said Danyelle Holmes, a Jackson resident who helps distribute water in the city and works as a national social justice organizer with Repairers of the Breach, which mobilizes low-income voters and the campaign of poor people. “Lives are at stake every day because of the water crisis, and pushing for another year until 2023 simply won’t work for the citizens of Jackson, especially when we’re talking about humanity and preserving life.”

No deaths linked to the water outage had been reported as of Friday, but health advocates have raised concerns about the vulnerability of dialysis patients who need access to clean water for treatment.

There is a mechanism for repair funding that could get to Jackson sooner. This year, the Mississippi Legislature created a $450 million water infrastructure funding program with money the state received through Congress’s Covid relief package passed in 2021. But the plan requires cities and counties to put up matching dollars and the Jackson only has about $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to commit, according to state Sen. John Horhn. Applications for the program opened Thursday, and some of that money could be awarded by the end of the year.

Mississippi’s governor declares a water emergency for state capital Jackson (Brad Vest/Getty Images)

Infrastructure in Mississippi’s capital has been likened to a “peanut brittle,” prone to water blackouts, years-long service outages and sewage spills on residential streets. Some pipes in the system were installed before the Great Depression. There’s also a history of delayed maintenance, which has culminated in repair costs that eclipse the entire city budget.

The consequences of maintenance with road kicks were severe. Boil water advisories are common in Jackson, and residents’ concerns about contaminant drift are persistent. In 2016, routine tests found elevated levels of lead, leading state health officials to warn pregnant women and young children against drinking the city’s water, an advisory that remained in effect as of last year.

Even when there is no advisory, some locals avoid drinking from the tap. This means they pay a bill every month for a service they can’t fully use and also at the grocery store for cases of bottled water. Wallets took an even bigger hit in February 2021, when many residents lost access to running water for a month after cold water froze their machines. Some locals were unable to work as businesses closed.

Efforts to fix the problems have been marred by inadequate city-level revenue after decades of population loss. There has also been a lack of aggressive investment from the state legislature that for many Black Jacksonians is a painful modern reflection of Mississippi’s long troubled history with race: Jackson is a majority-Black city with Democratic leadership, while the state’s U.S. recent sessions have been dominated by the predominantly white male Republican leadership. And despite the fact that Mississippi has the largest percentage of Black residents in the country, all of the state’s elected officials are white.

Lumumba said he is not in a position to refuse government aid, but noted earlier this week that the city has been “moving forward on its own” in recent years. Members of the city’s legislative delegation tried last year to get the city an additional $42 million from the state, but failed. the bill containing the appropriation died in committee.

State Rep. Shanda Yates, an independent who lives in Jackson and led the effort, said a $42 million appropriation from the Legislature likely would have flowed to the city sooner than the corresponding American Rescue Plan grant program, which just completed. ongoing.

An immediate concession to the city from the Legislature, he explained, might have meant the city could begin some work “sooner rather than later.”

“Maybe we could have started them already,” he said of the repair work the money would have covered.

Some residents have long argued that the racial disparity in state representation is why the city’s crisis has been allowed to fester without meaningful financial support from the Legislature.

“What’s really sad is that we have the resources and the technology to prevent this kind of disaster,” Holmes said. “The failure to prevent this kind of disaster is a direct failure of state leadership.”

While the relationship between city and state leadership has soured in recent years, Lumumba and Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, have more recently put up a united front. Thursday was the first time the two appeared at the same press conference on the ongoing water crisis.

A representative for Reeves did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Lumumba did not comment.

While many across the country prepare for an extended Labor Day weekend, Jackson remains in the throes of a water outage. At times, tens of thousands of residents across the city had little to no running water. Locals were already dealing with a boil alert that had been in effect since July 29 and were bracing for possible flooding after days of heavy rain when the latest crisis hit.

On August 29, Jacksonians had barely breathed a sigh of relief after learning that the city would likely be spared a serious flood when Reeves announced that the capital’s water system was on the verge of collapse.

City officials said the deluge affected operations at one of its water treatment plants, triggering the disruption. An emergency rental pump has been introduced to help increase production.

Some of the longer-term fixes, previously mentioned by city officials, could include replacing water lines throughout the capital at a cost of more than $11 million. Before the recent outage, repairs to water treatment plants were expected to exceed $35.6 million. And fixing some of the problems in the city’s sewer system is estimated to cost $30 million.

The $429 million Mississippi will receive from the federal infrastructure act over the next five years will flow primarily through two agencies.

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality administers the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program. (Revolving fund programs recycle money that has been repaid from previous borrowers to future borrowers, helping cities and counties that may not have enough revenue in their tax base to pay for repairs.) The agency initially received about $17 million and said that expects to start distributing capital in the second half of 2023.

Although the money hasn’t been released yet, Jan Schaefer, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Jackson recently received an award of about $31.7 million for a project involving its sewer system from a previous round of federal funds. The city has also completed initial planning needed to pursue another $163 million in funding from the state’s revolving loan programs, it said in a statement, but has not yet submitted applications.

Once the required paperwork is completed, he said, the projects “could probably be funded over the next several years.”

Another part of the infrastructure money will flow into the Ministry of Health’s State Revolving Drinking Water Fund. That fund already has more than $19 million from the act, which it has begun to fold into planned grants, according to Les Herrington with the agency’s Office of Environmental Health. The agency did not immediately share details about its timeline for granting additional funds.

In fiscal year 2021, $27 million in revolving loans from the state’s federal drinking water fund were awarded to Jackson for treatment facility improvements, but no new requests have been submitted since last year, according to the state Department of Health.

As the process to disburse federal funds continues, residents continue to wait in water distribution lines that stretch more than a mile for a basic need. No definitive date has been given for the restoration of service.

As of Friday morning, the city said water pressure levels were improving, but not yet to ideal standards.

Sam Mozee, director of the Mississippi Center for Urban Research at Jackson State University, says his team is watching what happens with funding going forward. His colleagues know firsthand how critical money will be — the campus has moved to virtual classes because of the shutdown.

“Health, safety, economic vitality — water affects everything,” Mozee said. “The whole system, everything is at stake.”

Bracey Harris reported from Jackson. Daniella Silva reported from New York.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *