Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves announced progress this week in stemming a prolonged water crisis. For weeks, the 150,000 residents of the state capital, Jackson, were instructed to boil water before drinking it or using it to cook, wash dishes or brush their teeth.
On Thursday, Tate announced the boil-water advisory was lifted, but citizens of America’s poorest state are left with the aftermath of the failure of an essential service — safe, plentiful tap water — that Americans in Jackson and some other parts of the country can no longer take for granted.
“It’s been frustrating to run the water in my bathtub and see it come out brown,” said Ellen Rodgers Daniels, who has lived in Jackson for 16 years. “My family and I brush our teeth with bottled water, and we go to a friend’s house outside city limits to shower, but that’s not a luxury everyone in Jackson has.”
By almost any economic measure, Jackson is an especially impoverished city. A quarter of its residents live below the poverty line, and Jackson’s per capita income of under $23,000 lags far behind a statewide average income that itself is the lowest in the nation.
Lacking clean drinking water has added to people’s woes.
“I haven’t drank tap water in Jackson for years,” Daniels told VOA. “I just drink bottled water, but then I go outside my office and see lines of cars outside the distribution center — people already struggling who now have to leave their jobs so they can get safe drinking water to bring home to their families. It’s heartbreaking.”
Decades in the making
The city had been under a continuous boil water advisory since July. Late last month, flooding from the Pearl River, which runs through Jackson, forced the city’s largest water treatment facility to stop treating drinking water.
As a result, water pressure across Jackson dropped dramatically, leaving residents and businesses with dry taps and few options.
“When the water pressure dropped, we had multiple groups cancel their events,” said Ebony Jones, the owner of a Jackson-based catering company. “And I can’t blame them. Who wants to pay for a caterer making premium locally sourced food at an event with Porta-Johns and paper plates?”
But residents are especially frustrated because this episode was far from an isolated event. In fact, Jackson’s water-related headaches have been going on for decades, said Cristiane Queiroz Surbeck, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Mississippi.
“The only difference this time is that most of the city went without running water for many days due to the major flooding,” Surbeck told VOA. “So there was flooding and a lack of usable water at the same time. But this isn’t new. Jackson has had an ongoing crisis of lead in its drinking water, an ongoing crisis of boil water alerts, an ongoing crisis of leaking water mains, and an ongoing crisis of mismanaged water bills.”
These crises pose real health risks. Consuming water containing high levels of lead can cause health problems in adults and children; in the latter, it can damage the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development, and lead to problems with learning, behavior, hearing and speech. Drinking untreated water that has not been boiled can lead to dangerous microbial infections.
In 2010, a winter storm destroyed several water mains and caused widespread outages. Two years later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Jackson’s drinking water was below national safety standards.
Another winter storm in February 2021 shut down the same water treatment facility that failed in August, leaving residents without water for a month.
Residents say that since the 2021 shutdown, they have often complained of low water pressure, and even of floating sewage in the city’s streets. City officials asked the state to fund repairs, but most of that funding has not arrived, resulting in a series of boil water advisories. Last year alone, Jackson was under such an advisory for a whopping 225 days.
But for many in Jackson, a city in which 83% of the population is Black, the problem goes back even further and is far deeper.
“Mississippi, unfortunately, has a long history of racism, and when the Black population in Jackson sees their water supply in shambles while elsewhere in the state is fine, they don’t just see dangerous lead and damaged pipes,” said attorney Corey Stern, who represented victims of another water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and is now doing the same in Jackson.
“They see decades of institutional racism through which their communities are being ignored and not being invested in.”
A broader problem
Failing infrastructure is a problem confined neither to Jackson nor to water treatment plants. Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, estimated it would cost $2.6 trillion over the next decade to fix America’s crumbling roads, dams, airports, railroads, pipes and more.
President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, passed in November, will cover but a fraction of those needs.
“If something costs a certain amount of money to fix and you only give me half, then I can’t fix the problem,” Stern said to VOA. “Unless we meet the price tag to fix our water infrastructure, it’s going to continue to crumble and it’s going to continue to poison our children.”
Experts say communities across the country will suffer as Jackson has if proper investments are not made.
“No drinking water or wastewater infrastructure is designed to last forever,” said Jason Barrett, an assistant extension professor in the Mississippi Water Resources Research Institute at Mississippi State University. “There will be maintenance required for all systems, and you can’t delay the inevitable. If you don’t invest, the results can be disastrous.”
Water system disasters have popped up across the country: Flint, Michigan; Baltimore, Maryland; New York City; and now Jackson.
The ASCE estimates that by 2029, $109 billion will be needed per year to maintain the country’s drinking water and wastewater systems. Jackson is currently requesting $1 billion for its drinking water infrastructure.
“Jackson is not unique,” Barrett told VOA. “Not even in Mississippi. Jackson is the capital city and the largest water system in the state, but we’re seeing the same issues play out all over, from cities to communities of less than 500 people.”
Making things right in Jackson
Stern said Jackson shares some important similarities with Flint, where in 2014 water was found to be contaminated with lead and dangerous bacteria.
“The demographics are suspiciously similar,” he said. “These are areas made up of poorer minority residents, and they’ve experienced decades without getting the investment they should have gotten.”
In his recent announcement, Governor Reeves warned there could be additional boil water advisories for Jackson as federal, state and city officials struggle to get the crisis under control.
Stern believes the sooner the residents of Jackson advocate for themselves in large numbers, the sooner they will force their government’s hand.
“As a lawyer, my job is to fight so my clients get safe and clean drinking water, as well as get compensated for the damage their children have suffered as a result of these systemic failures,” he said. “But what we learned in Flint is that when real people stand up and say, ‘This is my child, and this is what you did to her,’ that’s when they see real results.”
Many Mississippians who live and work in Jackson say they have had enough and are eager for long-term solutions.
“It’s like we’ve become numb to it over the years — these boil water advisories happened so often,” said Jessica Davenport, a Black businesswoman who lives outside Jackson but works in the city. “But this isn’t normal. This is a class issue, and there are specific communities who aren’t receiving the assistance they need. They’ve been forgotten while politicians blame each other, and it needs to stop.”