Jackson residents face clean water crisis -- as state, local leaders point fingers
It took days 'til the governor and mayor spoke -- after the mayor reached out.
Jackson, Mississippi's water supply is wholly unsafe to drink, officials said on Monday, with water pressure so low from long-failing treatment systems compounded by river flooding this week that cooking and cleaning -- and firefighting, flushing toilets and bathing -- would be widely unavailable for the state capital's 180,000 residents save for critical outside aid.
The emerging disaster has drawn attention to the strained relationship between the city's Democratic leadership and the Republican governor and legislature.
When Gov. Tate Reeves held an emergency press conference on Monday with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, Jackson's mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, was not in attendance even as Lumumba, separately, had been in discussions with the Department of Health that same day.
And on Tuesday, at a news conference of his own, Lumumba said that the issues had at last spurred aid for the Magnolia State's largest city after years of petitioning Reeves and the GOP-controlled legislature.
"We feel like we've been going at it alone for the better part of two years -- lifting up the fact that these are challenges that are, first and foremost, beyond partisan. These are human rights challenges," Lumumba said Wednesday on ABC News Live.
Reeves did not invite Lumumba to his Monday presser, according to a spokesperson for the mayor, who said that as of Tuesday evening, the two men had not spoken directly about the water problems. They subsequently a useful conversation on Wednesday morning, after the mayor initially reached out to Reeves, who then returned his call.
President Joe Biden also spoke to Lumumba on Wednesday morning.
Both Reeves and Lumumba have made emergency declarations and Reeves deployed the National Guard to assist on Tuesday.
The infrastructure issues with Jackson's water system, coupled with flooding from a nearby river which damaged one of the area's major processing facilities, fueled the latest -- but not the first -- water crisis.
The city's archaic system has been in the spotlight before for being on the risk of failure, most recently in the winter of 2021. The city had been under a separate boil water notice since late July for a water-quality issue.
"Even when we're not contending at that present moment with low pressure … we are in a constant state of emergency," Lumumba said at Tuesday's news conference. "And so now we are excited to have finally welcomed the state to the table and all of the valuable resources that they bring."
On ABC News Live, Lumumba said that "we've had great disparity in the funding of the resources of Jackson compared to other portions of our state, over generations."
"I think that it is time that we represent a new model ... that we demonstrate from the city level to the state level and beyond that we're all on board in trying to make certain that residents, that people, human beings, don't have to deal with the challenge of not having the basic resource of water," he said.
On Monday, the five state senators who represent the city of Jackson called for a special legislative session.
That day, the state's two other top Republicans, Lt. Governor Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Phillip Gunn, also released statements laying blame with local leaders.
"It is apparent the cities served by the system do not have the assets to address this issue in a timely manner and effectively for the longer term. I believe it is time for the State to take an active role in finding a solution—both short term and long term," Hosemann said.
Gunn said: "I've been contacted by hospitals, businesses, and schools pleading that something be done to address the water crisis in Jackson. Unfortunately, the city leadership has not presented a permanent solution or a comprehensive plan. These groups have turned to the state for help, and it seems we will have to evaluate what options might be available."
Reeves, too, has faced scrutiny. Critics have long accused the governor of stoking the flames of cultural warfare during his two-year tenure rather than addressing some of the state's critical needs -- especially in Jackson. In the days before and during the flooding that worsened the water problems, Reeves was active on social media sounding off on a range of other issues including Biden's student loan forgiveness plan and Second Amendment rights.
Since taking office in 2020, Reeves' greatest legislative focus has been on income tax breaks in the state.
Jackson residents voted in 2014 to approve a 1 cent local sales tax to pay for improvements to their roads and water and sewer systems. After the winter water emergency in 2021, the city council sought another election, subject to legislative approval, that would double that tax to 2 cents.
Reeves weighed in at the time and invoked the city's history of utility mismanagement. "I do think it's really important that the City of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money," he said.
Gunn, the state's House speaker, told a conservative radio show last week that the required $1 billion to fix the city's water system -- to help with repairs, upgrades and staffing, which is the No. 1 problem, officials have said -- may be too large of a price tag for even the state.
"I'm on the verge of saying that the state has got to step in and take over," he said. "But the size of the problem is so great that I'm not even sure the state can meet the needs. It's going to require federal help."
On Wednesday, Reeves announced that the federal disaster declaration for Jackson had been approved by the White House, freeing up further funds to assist residents.
"The White House is watching critically in terms of what is taking place here. And so we look forward to additional support from them," Lumumba said at Tuesday's news conference.
"We have open arms to welcome the coordination and welcome the support … This is what we've been asking for," he said.
ABC News' Justin Gomez contributed to this report.