The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jackson’s water crisis comes after years of neglect: ‘We’ve been going it alone’

Inadequate funding for essential infrastructure upgrades and tension between state and city leaders helped fuel the emergency.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan speaks with reporters at a water treatment plant in Mississippi last year. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

More than 150,000 residents of Jackson, Miss., remained without access to safe drinking water Tuesday, a day after officials announced that the city’s main treatment plant had failed, creating an emergency that could last “indefinitely.”

State and local leaders scrambled to address the crisis, which will require an unprecedented mobilization effort to provide water for flushing toilets, cooking and bathing. Officials have promised to distribute bottled water across the city, and to identify water reserves for the fire department.

In a news conference, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D) said his administration would work with a “coalition of the willing” to “improve the system that has been failing for decades.”

But he also highlighted the years of neglect that led to the disaster, arguing that his city deserved better. “We’ve been going it alone for the better part of two years when it comes to the Jackson water crisis,” Lumumba said, adding that it was never a “matter of if our system will fail but when.”

Jackson, which is 82 percent Black, had been under a boil-water advisory for the past month, after trouble with the main pumps at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. The situation escalated this week, after heavy rainfall and near-record flooding on the Pearl River completely knocked out service at the city’s primary water treatment plant.

As of Tuesday morning, some neighborhoods in Jackson had no running water. Jackson Public Schools said that starting Tuesday, all of its schools would shift to virtual learning.

Experts say this crisis was years in the making, a result of inadequate funding for essential infrastructure upgrades and tension between leaders of this majority-Black, Democrat-led city and the White Republicans who run the state.

Mukesh Kumar, who ran Jackson’s Department of Planning and Development from 2017 to 2019, said the seeds of the water crisis were planted in the 1960s, when White residents left the city in droves after federal courts mandated the integration of the city’s schools.

As the city shrunk, there was less money to fund schools and other resources. Middle-class Black families left as a result, leaving Jackson without the tax revenue it needed to upgrade its century-old water system.

State investment would have helped close the gap, Kumar said. But state officials repeatedly declined to fund improvements, leaving the city to fend for itself, he added.

“It sounds like they’re still fighting the same kind of battles with the same lines drawn instead of starting to prioritize what the people of Jackson need,” said Kumar, who has since left Jackson to run the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization in Texas.

Gov. Tate Reeves (R) did not respond to interview requests from The Washington Post. On Tuesday, Reeves declared a state of emergency and activated the Mississippi Guard.

“The state is marshaling tremendous resources to protect the people of our capital city,” Reeves said in a statement. “It will take time for that to come to fruition. But we are here in times of crisis, for anyone in the state who needs it.” Reeves said the state was prepared to distribute water from alternative sources for “as long as we have to.”

But he also highlighted the complexity of the task facing officials. “Replacing our largest city’s infrastructure of running water with human distribution is a massively complicated logistical task,” he said in a statement.

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In a news conference Monday night, Reeves appeared to suggest that Lumumba had kept state officials in the dark about the status of the water treatment plant, suggesting that the city had been unable to provide the state with a timeline of when the plant would be in “proper” operating condition. Lumumba, who was elected to a second term last year, was not at the briefing.

At a Tuesday news conference, Lumumba said his administration had been transparent with state officials.

Jackson has struggled for years with water issues. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan toured the city’s main plant last year to highlight what his agency called “long-standing environmental justice concerns in historically marginalized communities.”

In March, the agency issued an emergency order stating that the city’s water system presented “imminent and substantial endangerment” to residents and could contain E. coli bacteria. Last year, as President Biden campaigned for his infrastructure legislation, he said that “never again can we allow what happened in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi.”

Heavy rains caused Mississippi’s Pearl River to swell and crest at more than 35 feet on Aug. 29, just shy of the major flood stage. (Video: Reuters)

But Reeves and other officials have repeatedly opposed efforts to fund water treatment upgrades.

State lawmakers sunk efforts by the city to raise infrastructure funds through a sales tax increase. During winter 2021, when at least 40,000 Jackson residents went weeks without running water, Reeves told city leaders that they needed to do a better job “collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.” (In 2020, Reeves vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have provided relief to poor residents with past-due water bills, calling the idea “free money.”)

A 2021 bill that would have authorized a bond issuance to assist Jackson with making repairs and improvements to water and sewer systems died in the Republican-controlled state House Ways and Means committee.

In the wake of the water crisis, Democratic state officials have called on the state to take action.

“The state, with unprecedented money in the bank, must step up and invest in Jackson, and save a system that serves almost one-tenth of all Mississippians,” David Blount, a Democratic state senator whose district includes parts of the city of Jackson, said in a statement, adding, “We need to act now.”

Kumar worries that the situation in Jackson is a harbinger of other crises if cities are left to deal with the effects of climate change.

“Building a resilient infrastructure system is not something that a poor city of 150,000 people will be able to magically just build very quickly,” he said.

Kumar said that money from Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, passed earlier this year, could also help address those urgent needs. But some experts warn that it might not be so easy.

“Anyone who thinks Mississippi will change the very consistent practice of not investing in Black people — they’re delusional,” Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Post late last year. “If you’re the president of the United States and you have an equity agenda, you have to be worried that this money going to statehouses will not actually get to places like Jackson.”

Griff Witte contributed to this report.