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Environmental Justice

Mississippi Water Crisis Is ‘Racism to the Umpteenth Degree,’ Residents Say

Much of Jackson’s water failures have been chalked up to general divestment in the city, exacerbated by a shrinking population and tax base.

Problems at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant in Jackson, Mississippi, have contributed to the city's current struggle with access to safe drinking water. (Brad Vest/Getty Images)

The water crisis that has left residents of Jackson, Mississippi, struggling to bathe, cook, and flush their toilets has been decades in the making. 

For years, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has asked for financial assistance from the state government to alleviate the city’s infrastructure needs. Local organizers, rather than wait on the government, have developed their own networks to distribute bottled water and help neighbors pay for hotel rooms and food. 

One community organization, the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, formed months ago in response to ongoing problems with water infrastructure. When an aging water treatment plant failed earlier this week, causing more than 160,000 residents in the capital city to have little to no water pressure, the coalition was ready to mobilize resources for residents.

But the grassroots efforts by Jacksonians are short term and reliant on donations and volunteers.

“We’re putting Band-Aids on gunshot wounds to try to hold the pressure in until someone more trained with better care comes along,” said Mac Epps, director of Mississippi M.O.V.E., a coalition of local community action groups.

Officials have said that there is no timeline for when the state health department will be able to restore water service. 

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves provided a long-awaited response to the crisis on Tuesday, declaring a state of emergency that allowed the state health department and Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to oversee repairs of raw water pumps and enter into a contract to bring in staff to operate the water treatment plant.  He also requested assistance from the Biden administration, which provided emergency protective measures and 75% of federal funding for 90 days. 

The crisis in Jackson underscores a growing risk to Black communities in the South that are burdened by failing water systems and frequent boil water notices. Outside of California, a majority of the country’s failing water systems are scattered throughout rural areas of the Midwest and Southern states such as Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Mississippi — all of which have growing Black populations and are expected to be some of the worst hit places for future storms and extreme heat. 

The deteriorating water infrastructure in Jackson has often led to school closures, hospital shutdowns, and life-threatening challenges for infants and the elderly. The problem has been made worse during severe weather events that are becoming more common in the South. 

Last year, as thousands of Jackson residents went without water for weeks, Reeves blamed the aging infrastructure, saying the issue dated back to “50 years of negligence and ignoring the challenges of the pipes and the system.” Since his statement, the Republican-dominated Legislature has given little support to the city. 

A history of neglect

The estimated price for fixing Jackson’s water system is $1 billion. Still, the entire state of Mississippi received just $429 million for water repairs during the last round of funding made available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

Before the infrastructure law, federal funding for water infrastructure had declined by nearly 80% since the 1970s, leaving city water systems across the country targeting residents through higher rates and aggressive shutoff and lien policies, which disproportionately impact poor Black residents. 

During last year’s water crisis, Reeves publicly declared that the city should first look to collect funds from customers — most of whom are Black and roughly 25% of whom live in poverty — rather than relying on state and federal aid. 

“It is racism to the umpteenth degree. The government may say there’s not enough money here to fix it, but at the end of the day, people don’t care about that,” said Brooke Floyd, coordinator for the Jackson People’s Assembly and member of the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition. “They care about being able to flush their toilets, turn on the water and have something to drink. We’re not able to do it.”

Much of Jackson’s water failures have been chalked up to general divestment in the city, exacerbated by a shrinking population and tax base. While much of that exodus was driven by white flight to surrounding wealthy suburbs, Jackson is also one of only 13 major metro areas in the U.S. to have lost Black residents since 2010, according to a Capital B analysis

In 2021, the city spent more than 200 days under water-boil notices. The issue has reached such intense levels that popular souvenir T-shirts include the phrase “Welcome to Boil Water Alert, Mississippi.” Most wastewater treatment plants are designed with an average lifespan of roughly 40 years; one of Jackson’s primary plants is well over 100 years old

As Jackson’s water woes reentered the national conversation, the federal Environmental Protection Agency called out the city for failing to act on an agreed-upon water revitalization plan. Particularly, EPA officials noted, the city failed to hire new water operations staff and take the next steps in implementing an alternative water plan to correct its old and outdated systems.

To address the staffing question, Lumumba said at an Aug. 30 press briefing that the city has 10 individuals training to become Class A operators, and the city’s human resource division has reached out to other counties to find candidates. For an individual with a degree, it takes two years to become certified, whereas it can take a non-degreed individual up to six years to become certified, he added.

“We have seen people come and be trained and leave in the midst of the process,” Lumumba said. “We’re looking to bring in retired employees that can work a maximum of 20 hours for the timeframe prescribed without violating their retirement protocol or endangering their retirement.”

A looming climate crisis

Jackson’s crumbling water treatment system is especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants and weather events. Large portions of the state get some of its water from the Mississippi River, which has been contaminated by wastewater, agricultural runoff, and fertilizer for years. And heavy rain storms, like the one the city saw on Monday, swamp already overflowing water treatment operations.

Mississippi faces some of the nation’s most severe threats from extreme heat and coastal flooding. Today, Mississippi averages 25 extreme heat days a year, but by 2050, the state is projected to see this rate quadruple as heat will exceed dangerous levels for one-third of the year. Coupled with an aging and poorly insulated housing stock, lacking access to water will lead to deadly results during these days. 

More than 80% of Jackson’s census tracts are considered “disadvantaged” in terms of economic and climate-related injustices, according to a White House database. Communities in Jackson have some of the country’s highest rates of asthma and diabetes. Studies have identified drinking water quality and compounds found in drinking water as major environmental risk factors for the development of diabetes. According to the White House’s database, the average resident on the city’s south side has a lower life expectancy than 95% of the country. 

For Epps with Mississippi M.O.V.E., his greatest fear is losing more residents because of the government’s slow response. The White House’s analysis found that parts of Jackson’s south and west sides have some of the country’s highest expected population loss rates, which estimates the number of fatalities and injuries resulting from the aftermath of natural hazards and severe weather events each year.

“We’re gonna lose lives. Folks don’t have a lot of, I don’t want to say fight not left in them ‘cause our folks are very resilient, but they’ve been hit with a lot of stuff back to back — natural disasters, pandemic, and a failing health care system,” Epps said. “They are dependent on us.”