Water problems in Jackson, Mississippi, go deeper than pipes, experts say

In August, historic flooding damaged a major pump at O.B. Curtis Water Plant.

September 21, 2022, 6:00 AM

When Jackson, Mississippi, residents lost access to clean water late last month, federal, state and local officials scrambled to fix an infrastructure problem deeper than just money could solve.

In August, historic flooding in Mississippi damaged a major pump at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant, the main water treatment facility in Jackson, which left around 150,000 of the city's mostly Black residents without drinkable water.

Residents were forced to line up on streets and highways throughout the city to pick up water at distribution sites because of the shortage.

The most recent water crisis highlighted residents' yearslong plight with the city's ongoing water issues, and raised questions about how the city came to be in this situation and what the long-term plans are to fix the issue.

How did Jackson get here

While water pressure did return to Jackson about a week after the shortage, the city's mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, at a press conference earlier this month, attributed the crisis to staffing shortages, system issues and multiple equipment failures.

"This is due to decades, decades and decades, of possibly 30 years or more of deferred maintenance, a lack of capital improvements made to the system, a lack of a human capital, a workforce plan that accounted for the challenges that our water treatment facility suffers from," Lumumba told "ABC News Prime" last month.

Over the last 40 years, Jackson's population has shrunk as more of the city's white residents left and moved to the suburbs, a practice known as "white flight," resulting in not as many taxes coming into the city, policy experts told ABC News.

PHOTO: A woman closes a faucet as a kid washes her hands while the city of Jackson is to  be without reliable drinking water indefinitely in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 2, 2022.
A woman closes a faucet as a kid washes her hands while the city of Jackson is to be without reliable drinking water indefinitely after the water treatment plant pumps failed, leading to emergency distribution of bottled water and tanker trucks for 180,000 people, in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 2, 2022.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

"Infrastructure is crumbling in a lot of different places, not just Black places," Andre M. Perry, Ph.D., a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, a policy arm of the Brookings Institution, told ABC News. "However, in Jackson, there was a direct link to a loss of revenue to white and middle-class flight, which were facilitated by investments in the '60s and '70s that led to the building up of the suburbs."

Black people make up 82.5% of Jackson's population, while white people make up 16.2%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The most recent census data also showed that Jackson's population went from slightly more than 173,000 people in 2010 to around 149,000 people as of July 2021.

That "white flight" cost the city of Jackson the opportunity to build its infrastructure, according to Perry. "In its highest form, infrastructure lays the foundation for economic and community development across regions," he said.

Here are the issues experts and officials say Jackson needs to address to move forward and tackle its water crisis:

Show me the money

Mississippi is one of the most dependent states on the federal government, currently ranking third in federal funding, behind West Virginia and New Mexico, according to a 2022 study from financial tech company SmartAsset.

For every $1 it pays in income tax, the state receives $2.53 in federal funding, according to SmartAsset.

Government officials have discussed how much it will cost to fix Jackson's water issue, and the figures have varied.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Eagan met with Lumumba and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves earlier this month to discuss the water crisis and said the state has already received millions of dollars to solve the water issue.

Mississippi is set to receive more than $26 million in State Revolving Funds (SRF) this year, which is on top of the $30 million it received in 2021 for Jackson, Eagan said during a Sept. 7 press conference. Around $13 million is currently being spent, he said.

The state funds help public water systems bankroll the costs of infrastructure projects needed to reach or maintain compliance set under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

A member of the National Guard carries bottles of drinking water at a distribution site in Jackson, Mississippi, Sept. 1, 2022.
Carlos Barria/Reuters

In December, the EPA announced that Mississippi would get nearly $75 million for water infrastructure projects, as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which was signed by President Joe Biden in November 2021; in the next five years, Mississippi is expected to receive $400 million through the law, Eagan said.

Lumumba estimated it would cost at least $1 billion to fix the water distribution system and billions more to resolve the issue altogether.

During a Sept. 7 press conference, Reeves said that one of the solutions is to fix the water billing system so that people who get water are being billed for it.

City residents have long complained about a malfunctioning water meter system, preventing them from receiving their bills, according to Jackson ABC affiliate WAPT.

"Within that funding structure and the rate structure, we have to make sure we have adequate dollars in there so as to fund routine maintenance on a regular basis. Those are areas that have been a challenge in the immediate past," Reeves said.

How Jackson's water system works

The city of Jackson runs its own water, making it harder to fix the system because not enough taxes are being collected due to shifting demographics, according to Perry, who believes there is a shared responsibility to fix the issue.

"We need a regional approach to managing water, in which taxes for infrastructures are collected on a regional level and dispersed equitably based on need," he said.

Jackson's water system only serves the city's residents, which is detrimental to Jacksonians, according to experts.

"If [we] drink from the same water source, even if [we] don't like one another, we're sort of handcuffed, whether we like each other or not, we're drinking from the same water, so we both have an interest in making sure that it's good," Manny Teodoro, an associate professor at the LaFollette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told ABC News.

Phillip Young, a local resident from Jackson, Miss. takes a break while helping local volunteers with the distribution of bottles of water as city of Jackson and areas around are to go without reliable drinking water indefinitely, Aug. 31, 2022.
Carlos Barria/Reuters, FILE

No easy solution

Jackson City Councilman Aaron Banks told ABC News that there needs to be an in-depth analysis of all the conditions and system components impacting Jackson's water system, as well as policy in addressing how much it would cost.

"I think all options are on the table when it comes to oversight," Banks said. "We as the council need to know what it costs so we can begin working with our partners to invest money, whether federally or state, and begin prioritizing our budget."

However, throwing money at the problem isn't going to immediately solve Jackson's long-stemming water issues, which are more systemic and structural, Teodoro said.

​​"The disaster is a legacy of racial hatred, but also the work of leaders who found it politically expedient to ignore the city's water problems for decades instead of solving them," Teodoro wrote in a blog post on his website.

This week, Jackson residents filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the city; past and current city officials, including Lumumba and former mayor Tony Yarber, and infrastructure engineering companies for their purported roles in the water crisis. Spokespersons for Lumumba, Powell, Miller, and Siemens declined to comment when reached by ABC News. Yarber, Smash, and Trilogy Engineering did not immediately respond to ABC News' requests for comment.

Some suggestions in handling Jackson's water issues include the state creating a regional water authority to operate the system, creation of a state commission to take control of the system and privatizing the city's system, according to Teodoro.

"Even if somebody could wave a magic wand and Congress, by some miracle, were to pass a bill that would give Jackson $1 billion to completely overhaul its infrastructure for water and sewer, we'd be right back in this situation five, 10, 20 years down the road because we haven't fixed those underlying structural problems," Teodoro said.

ABC News' Kendall Ross contributed to this report.