The Mississippi capital’s water problems are considerable

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi capital is grappling with the near collapse of its water supply system, prompting declarations of emergency from President Joe Biden and Governor Tate Reeves.

Jackson has dangerously low water pressure this week, and many of the city’s 150,000 residents have no water flowing from their faucets.

The problems began days after torrential rains fell in central Mississippi, affecting the quality of raw water entering Jackson’s treatment plants. This slowed down the treatment process, drained the water reservoirs and caused a sudden drop in pressure.

When the water pressure drops, it is possible for untreated groundwater to enter the water system through cracked pipes. Customers are therefore advised to boil water to kill potentially harmful bacteria.

But even before the downpour, officials said some water pumps had failed and a treatment plant was using standby pumps. Jackson had previously been on a month-long boil water advisory because the state health department found cloudy water that could make people sick.

WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF WATER PROBLEMS IN JACKSON?

Jackson is the largest city in one of the poorest states in the United States

The city has a shrinking tax base due to white flight, which began about a decade after public schools were integrated in 1970. Jackson’s population is over 80 percent black and about 25 percent of its residents live in poverty.

Like many American cities, Jackson struggles with aging infrastructure with cracking or collapsing water pipes. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat in a Republican-led state, said the city’s water problems stem from decades of deferred maintenance.

Some equipment froze at Jackson’s main water treatment plant during a cold snap in early 2020, leaving thousands of customers with dangerously low water pressure or no water at all. The National Guard participated in the distribution of drinking water. People collected water in buckets to flush the toilets. Similar issues occurred on a smaller scale earlier this year.

Jackson frequently has boil water advisories due to loss of pressure or other issues that can contaminate the water. Some of the warrants are only in place for a few days, while others last for weeks. Some only affect specific neighborhoods, usually due to broken pipes in the area. Others affect all customers of the water system.

The state health department placed Jackson’s entire water system under a boil water advisory in late July due to cloudy water quality. That mandate remains in effect, and officials did not say when it might end. Although boiling water is meant to protect people’s health, it also makes daily tasks more time-consuming.

WHERE DOES JACKSON HOLD HER WATER?

Most of Jackson’s water comes from the Ross Barnett Reservoir, which lies just northeast of the city and is fed by the Pearl River. The city also draws water from a well. Additionally, hospitals and some state agencies have drilled their own wells to have water available in case there is a problem with the city’s system.

The water system serves approximately 150,000 residents of Jackson and approximately 11,500 residents of a suburb, Byram, as well as businesses and government offices. About 80% of customers had little or no water Wednesday morning at the height of the current outage, and all customers had low pressure, a spokeswoman for the city of Jackson said.

WHERE DOES JACKSON TREAT ITS WATER?

Jackson has two water treatment plants. The newest and largest is the OB Curtis plant near the reservoir. This plant has been the main source of the most recent problems. The governor said two pumps at Curtis had stopped working in the past month, so the plant was running on standby pumps. A temporary pump was installed on Wednesday.

The Curtis plant is licensed to produce up to 50 million gallons (189,271 kilolitres) of water per day. According to the governor’s office, it was producing 20 million gallons (75,708 kiloliters) as of Thursday. The former water treatment plant, JH Fewell, is licensed to produce 20 million gallons (75,708 kilolitres) of water per day, with the ability to go up to 30 million gallons (113,562 kilolitres). As of Thursday, it was producing 20.5 million gallons (77,601 kiloliters).

ARE THERE ENOUGH PEOPLE WORKING AT JACKSON’S WATER PLANTS?

Lack of staff is a serious problem.

The mayor said the city is struggling to find and hire enough certified Class A water operators. Federal law requires that at least one such operator be on duty at every water treatment plant at any time.

WLBT-TV requested emails from the city and found that the Curtis plant had one-sixth the number of certified operators it needed to be fully staffed. The city engineer said in November that the staff shortage was so severe that the city would have to close one of its factories if another operator left. The documents also showed that the operators worked huge amounts of overtime.

WHAT ABOUT WATER QUALITY?

The Environmental Protection Agency issued an advisory in January that Jackson’s system violates federal drinking water safety law. The EPA noted that an April 2021 fire in the Curtis electrical panel rendered all five pumps unavailable for service, resulting in low water pressure. An inspection six months later revealed that the pumps were still out of order.

In 2015, routine testing found lead levels above acceptable levels in Jackson’s water samples, and the city continues to issue public water quality advisories not meeting minimum standards.

In 2016, the state health department found improper application of water treatment chemicals due to a failing corrosion control system at the Curtis plant. The EPA has asked the city to correct this problem. In 2017, the city began installing corrosion control treatment.

A water quality advisory issued in July said the majority of samples tested had lead levels “below the EPA’s action threshold”. water and that children under 5 should be screened for lead and blood tests.

WHAT OTHER WATER PROBLEMS HAS JACKSON?

Jackson also struggled with sewage.

In 2012, the city entered into a consent decree with the EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality laws. The city remains out of compliance.

In late April, the city submitted a report to federal regulators showing that sewer failures caused nearly 45 million gallons (170,344 kiloliters) of untreated sewage to be released into the environment between December and March.

HOW MUCH WILL FIXING JACKSON’S WATER PROBLEMS COST?

The mayor said fixing Jackson’s water system could cost billions of dollars, which is far beyond what the city can afford.

An infrastructure bill that Biden signed into law last year is designed to address issues like Jackson’s, but it’s unclear how much money the Mississippi capital will receive.

The Mississippi Legislature this year allocated $3 million for repairs to the Fewell water plant in Jackson. The Legislature has also invested $400 million of federal pandemic relief money in a water infrastructure fund, and Jackson may seek some of it. Cities or counties are required to match grant money with local money. The application period opened on Thursday.