JACKSON, Miss. — The historic floods that washed across southern Louisiana in 2016 left Joyce Turner Keller’s home so damaged she was forced to sleep in her car. The Baton Rouge native had no flood insurance to recover the belongings she lost in the floodwaters. Government officials were slow to respond as she struggled with the bureaucracy of emergency aid programs.
The life-altering catastrophe revealed to Turner Keller how prevalent water struggles are in the United States — and how unreliable the nation’s safety net is in responding to them. The realization propelled her to spend the past six years driving across the South distributing water and food to residents hit by crumbling infrastructure, natural disasters, and other climate change crises.
When she saw news reports last month that more than 160,000 Jackson residents were lacking clean, running water, Turner Keller drove three hours in her white truck filled with cases of bottled water.
“We do this to make sure that communities are taken care of,” she said while distributing the bottles in Jackson with Operation Good, a local community organization. “It’s kind of hard for me to sleep and be comfortable at night when I know that some child may not have what he or she needs or an elderly person’s needs are not being met.”
As climate change has increased the frequency of severe weather events, the failure of old, dilapidated infrastructure has turned natural disasters into long-lasting crises for Black Americans across the country. Whether it’s the collapse of water treatment plants during floods, frozen pipes during frigid temperatures, or extreme heat causing water pipes to burst, many communities of color have been left without reliable water, making death and illness more likely.
Some wealthier, often white, communities have received government-funded infrastructure upgrades to stave off the most disastrous effects of climate change. Meanwhile, Black communities are largely left to rely on grassroots networks to support themselves during disasters. A 2019 analysis of data by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Coming Clean, and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance found that water systems that consistently fail and see episodes of contamination are 40% more likely to serve people of color, and they take longer than systems in white communities to come back into compliance.
Jackson’s weeks-long boil-water advisory was lifted Sept. 15, but the region’s underlying infrastructure issues persist. While announcing that the city’s water was again safe to drink, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves cautioned, “We cannot perfectly predict what may go wrong with such a broken system in the future.” As state and city officials have pointed fingers over the water crisis, they have not specified how much of the federal funding Mississippi is receiving for infrastructure upgrades will go to its predominantly Black capital city.
Looking at the drinking water revitalization fund that was created by the 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Mississippi has received less money than the three most similarly sized states: Kansas, Arkansas, and Nevada. Despite their similar water struggles, Arkansas — which has seven times fewer Black residents than Mississippi — received more funding through the revolving fund: $27.1 million compared to $19.4 million.
Meanwhile, Black Mississippians have attempted to fill the gaps left by decades of government neglect.
“We’ve been taking care of it by ourselves while still, year after year, asking for support, for assistance,” said Rukia Lumumba, director of the People’s Advocacy Institute, a Jackson-based social justice organization.
Lumumba also is a member of the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, which has been distributing water during Jackson’s repeated crises for more than a year. Water justice organizations are a growing presence in Black communities to advocate for better access to clean, affordable running water. Similar groups have organized in Detroit; Newark, N.J.; Toledo, Ohio, and other cities nationwide.
“You can read a history book and see how Black people have continuously been self-reliant,” said Maisie Brown, an organizer for the Mississippi Student Water Crisis Advocacy Team. “We’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing in the community as long as we have to.”
‘Nobody’s going to … save us’
Water issues plaguing Black communities are widespread and far-reaching: Toxic chemicals were pumped into the water system of Denmark, South Carolina, for more than a decade. Arsenic and lead poisoning have been found in predominantly Black housing projects in New York City, Los Angeles, and everywhere in between. E-coli poisoning and lead water contamination created crises in Baltimore and Flint, Michigan. Sewage has been detected in drinking water in rural parts of the Midwest and the South.
Residents feel the impacts of these injustices from birth. Black children are three times more likely than white children to have elevated blood lead levels because of deteriorating water systems in their communities. These realities change the relationships that entire communities have with the vital resource. A national survey in 2021 found that 43% of white Americans are “very confident” in their tap water while just 24% of Black Americans feel the same way. Roughly 55% of Black Americans exclusively drink bottled water at home because of water quality fears, compared to 28% of white residents.
The pandemic has made the lack of access to clean water and sanitation even more significant. Since March 2020, a quarter of Black Americans changed their buying habits to purchase more bottled water for general use, according to the 2021 survey, while less than 10% of white people made a similar change.
This form of self-preservation is prevalent across the country in Black communities.
“We know nobody’s going to come and save us,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick, president of water justice organization We The People of Detroit, at a water rights rally last year. “We must be a part of saving ourselves and declare that part of that salvation is the human right to water.”
In 2008, Lewis-Patrick co-founded We The People of Detroit after noticing the compounding effects of the city’s aging water infrastructure and its aggressive water shutoff policy for households behind in payments. In partnership with Henry Ford Health, the organization recently found that residents were 150% more likely to experience water-related illnesses if their water services had been shut off. The organization conducted town halls and advocacy meetings to devise ways to protect vulnerable residents from shutoffs and to advocate for direct intervention from the state of Michigan.
Although funding for infrastructure revitalization is now relatively abundant through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Lewis-Patrick believes issues will persist. Governments have spent decades neglecting water systems in Black communities, so making funds available now won’t quickly reverse the situation, she argues.
In addition to monetary assistance, a conscious effort must be made to ensure training and job support are available to communities of color to operate the infrastructure upgrades. In Jackson, for example, the city has been criticized and is being investigated for failing to hire and train the new water operations staff needed to correct its old and outdated systems.
“We have to talk about that it’s not just about an urban fix, but it’s also about making sure that we’re reaching out to rural communities, giving them tech support and the undergirding they need to take advantage of those dollars,” Lewis-Patrick said.
Long-term problem, short-term solutions
The passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November created hope that the infusion of federal funding would provide a long-awaited fix for the nation’s crumbling pipes, bridges, and roads. But government funding often has bypassed smaller and rural communities, said Pablo Ortiz, climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Because only a small number of families are affected in these communities, they are deemed “too expensive” and don’t create “a necessary pressure for the government to help,” he said.
Like Jackson, these areas suffer from poor air quality, lower tax bases, and deteriorating infrastructure, and many are hard hit by climate change, which exacerbates the water issues, Ortiz explained. The neglect has forced the communities to create piecemeal solutions in rural and impoverished regions of California’s Central Valley.
Just a few hundred miles away in Orange County, one of the wealthiest and whitest regions in the state, water systems recently received $310 million in upgrades to combat the state’s drought. The advancements will allow the county to satisfy 75% of its drinking water needs by combining water from wastewater recycling with the region’s groundwater.
Read more: Residents: Mississippi Water Crisis Is ‘Racism to the Umpteenth Degree.’
Ortiz wanted to focus on community-based solutions in the Central Valley, which has struggled with water contamination, excessive drought, and waning surface water availability for years. While working with grassroots organizations, Ortiz found grant funding to launch a pilot project installing free water infiltration systems in impacted homes. The first filter was installed in Mendota, California, a rural community that is 96% Hispanic.
To provide long-term solutions to the water woes, community organizers and government officials must work in tandem, Ortiz said. For example, the major issue of aquifer pollution from agriculture in rural places throughout California, the Midwest, and along the Mississippi River has not received much attention in the latest round of federal funding. On top of that, air pollution and contaminated water from fertilizer and pesticides still exist, he said.
And even with infrastructure improvements, severe weather, climate change, and pollution will continue to exacerbate water issues in communities. Laws and funding don’t do enough to target the source of the air pollution and contaminated water, he said.
“There are millions of dollars going to solve this problem, which is great, but it lacks [a] long-term solution,” Ortiz said. “Most of these policies or regulations are not looking at the source of the problem.”
Rain gardens and green roofs
Some communities of color are already enacting solutions that could help close the water gap, experts say. In Milwaukee, Chicago, New York City, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, certain neighborhoods are using natural infrastructure to improve water quality and water-use efficiency through green roofs and “rain gardens,” which capture rainwater and water runoff. These systems help naturally and immediately replenish the groundwater supply and take pressure off outdated sewage and water treatment infrastructure.
These solutions also save communities millions of dollars in the long run. A recent EPA study found that every $1 spent on natural water infrastructure saved $27 in future contamination cleanup costs.
Gloria Gray, the first Black chairwoman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest water district in the country, says centering community voices in combating the country’s water issues is “absolutely essential.”
“There has to be people at the table that have had the lived experiences or some knowledge when we discuss any kind of decision that we’re going to make, whether it’s water conservation or infrastructure,” she said.
However, Gray’s district has shown that having a seat at the table only goes so far when money and power are at play. Earlier this month, as students at Jordan High School in the historic Black district of Watts in Los Angeles experienced water contamination and shut-offs during the region’s longest-ever heatwave, celebrities in Los Angeles such as Kim Kardashian and Kevin Hart were using millions of gallons of water in a single month.
Turner Keller has seen this kind of betrayal regularly in spite of the rise of community water activism, but she would rather continue fighting. It is about bringing resources to Black folks across the country and pushing back against the normalization of environmental health crises in Black neighborhoods.
“They’re saying, ‘Oh, well, [the water in Jackson] is going to be back to normal.’ But it’s not normal for you to turn your water on and there is none. It’s not normal for you to pay your water bill, and you’re still being charged, but you have no service. Or if the water does come out of the faucet, it’s so brown that you can’t drink it,” she said.
“I can’t afford to be quiet because I was always told that silence proves content,” she added. “The only thing that brings about change is exposure. Sometimes you got to pull the scab off of a wound before it heals.”