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Jackson’s Water Crisis Highlights the Need For Investment in Climate Resilient Infrastructure

Following a 32-day boil water notice, devastating flooding left Jackson, Mississippi’s residents without clean water. Mississippi is set to receive $425 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but many worry that the GOP state government won’t allocate needed funding to Jackson.

 

In the last days of August, Jackson, Mississippi experienced devastating flooding, rising to 35.37 feet, which left 180,000 of the city’s residents without access to clean, running water. This summer, one of Mississippi's hottest in recent years, had already placed Jackson under a month-long boil-water notice. The Jackson water crisis foreshadows a worrisome future for Southern cities—a future where climate change compounds the problems already present from crumbling infrastructure and systemic inequalities.

In response to the August 2022 water crisis, Jackson’s Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told an ABC News reporter, “I have said on multiple occasions, that it's not a matter of if our system would fail. But a matter of when our system will fail.” The mayor explained that the city’s water system has been under a "constant state of emergency" for the past two years. In February 2020, severe flooding in Jackson damaged over 500 homes and breached the water system, tainting flood waters with sewage and chemicals. This same storm caused flash flooding and water crises across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Again, in 2021, a winter storm froze and burst pipes across the water system, placing the entire city under a boil water notice and forcing a large segment to go without running water.


Mayor Lumumba explained that the issues the city’s water system is experiencing are the result of “accumulated problems based on deferred maintenance that has not taken place over decades.” Following 2020’s devastating flooding, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigated Jackson’s public water system, publishing a detailed report outlining the major shortfalls. The report found that the OB Curtis Water Treatment Plant had not completed the required calibration or maintenance of its filtration and monitoring systems for over three years. This August, these same systems at OB Curtis were unable to keep up with the floodwaters, causing a severe drop in water pressure responsible for boil-water notices and 180,000 residents without running water. In 2020, the report warned of the dangerous understaffing of OB Curtis and JH Fewell, the water treatment plants that provide the capital city with its drinking water. Emails from this summer between the operator of OB Curtis and numerous city officials revealed that Jackson’s water treatment plants were facing dangerous understaffing with workers logging hundreds of hours of overtime in the months leading up to the August water crisis. Most concerningly, the EPA report found that multiple storage basins at both of the city's water treatment plants were not functional or in need of immediate repair. These same storage basins were overwhelmed by the flooding in August 2022, leaving the majority of the capital’s residents without water.


For the residents of cities who are already struggling because of infrastructural issues, like Jackson, the extreme weather and temperatures caused by climate change threaten to worsen their already dire situations. Jackon’s Mayor Lumumba offered his concern over the fate of the city’s water system in the wake of the impacts of climate change, stating, "We've had hotter summers, colder winters, and more precipitation each year and it's taking a toll on our infrastructure. And so we need the support to not only create sustainability and equity in our system but to also weatherize our system."


Jackson exposes a trend in Republican states across the American South which is disproportionately impacting low-income and BIPOC urban communities. One in four Jackson residents lives in poverty and 80% of the city’s population is Black. Infrastructure issues, exacerbated by a lack of government investment, climate change, and systemic discrimination are creating critical health emergencies for these cities’ residents.


In July 2022, in Marion, Kentucky, a community where almost one in five individuals is experiencing poverty (a poverty rate higher than the national average), a levee breach caused more than 3,000 residents to run out of water. Cancer Alley is an 85-mile stretch between the Southeastern Louisiana cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans where over 150 petrochemical facilities are located. These facilities face investigation by the EPA for emitting dangerous chemicals into the air, water, and soil, putting predominantly Black and low-income communities nearby at high health risk. These facilities’ pollution of the Mississippi River, where many of these residents get their drinking water, has been linked to the region's high cancer rate, which is 44% higher than the national average.


For communities already struggling with deteriorating infrastructure, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law represents what may be their only hope to mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change. This law offers $1.2 trillion in funding for cities across the nation to repair their crumbling roads, bridges, transportation networks, and water systems. However, even more importantly, this law has prioritized building climate-resilient infrastructure that can withstand extreme temperatures and storms caused by climate change. This law will invest $55 billion to expand access to clean drinking water across the nation, an important win for places with crumbling infrastructure in need of hefty financing like Jackson.


But will this be enough to fix Jackson’s water crisis? Some, including advocacy groups in Mississippi who feel that Jackson’s issues have been exasperated by racism, say no. Abre Conner, the director of environmental and climate justice with the NAACP expressed her lack of faith in Mississippi state government officials to properly allocate funding to areas in need like Jackson, saying, “there needs to be more effort in order to have funding flow straight into Jackson and for the state to not have complete control over the decisions about federal funding.”


Scrutiny has fallen on Governor Tate Reeves and Mississippi’s Republican-controlled legislature for their withholding of federal funds from the city. During Jackson’s water system failure in the winter of 2021, Governor Reeves drew controversy when he responded to funding requests by saying, “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.” The governor along with other GOP politicians in the state have continually placed blame on Jackson’s government and residents for water systems failure. Yet, in 2021, the GOP congress killed a bill set to raise the sales tax in Jackson by a cent in order to support water infrastructure developments. Similarly, in 2020, Governor Reeves vetoed a bill to allow the City of Jackson to collect delinquent water accounts and negotiate outstanding balances. Reeves defended his decision to veto this bipartisanly supported bill, posting on Facebook, "Other cities have issues too, why should only Jackson get a carve-out? There are needy Mississippians who would rather not pay their bills all over."


This past spring, Mississippi’s legislature set aside $450 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to go toward a Mississippi Municipality and County Water Infrastructure (MCWI) grant program for improving water infrastructure across the state. However, in order to receive this grant, local governments must match the amount received, blocking Jackson from receiving as much funding as it needs to solve its crisis. On September 7th, Governor Reeves claimed that the state government had given Jackson “about $200 million” over the past five years. However, the numbers show that the state has only given Jackson a $454,000 grant and forgave $1.5 million in the city's debt to relieve infrastructure issues. The rest of this $200 million dollars the governor referred to was revenue generated by Jackson’s local sales tax, American Rescue Plan Act funding from the federal government, and loans that the city still must pay back.


With Mississippi set to receive $429 million over the next five years from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to direct toward fixing its water systems, now more than ever it is crucial that the Mississippi state government allocates funding to Jackson’s failing water infrastructure. But will the state government allocate this federal funding to Jackson? Governor Reeves’ has been unwilling to promise more than $20 million of the $429 million federal funding to the city admitting, “I think we all know the intermediate and long-term plans are going to be far greater than that.”


Many across Jackson have called upon the state government for funding to fix the water crisis that left 180,000 without drinkable water. Jackson Mayor Lumumba has led these pleas, stating, “The residents of Jackson are worthy. They are worthy of a dependable system, and we look forward to a coalition of the willing that will join us in the fight to improve this system that has been failing for decades.”


Julia Comino is a sophomore majoring in Political Science and Journalism. She is a Staff Writer for the Agora.


Image courtesy Mississippi National Guard, Creative Commons.