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The Jackson, Mississippi Water Crisis And America's Crumbling Water System

Madonna Manor maintenance supervisor Lamar Jackson left, stacks bottled water brought by Mac Epps of Mississippi Move, as part of the supply efforts by city councilman and State Rep. De'Keither Stamps to a senior residence in west Jackson, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo)
Madonna Manor maintenance supervisor Lamar Jackson left, stacks bottled water brought by Mac Epps of Mississippi Move, as part of the supply efforts by city councilman and State Rep. De'Keither Stamps to a senior residence in west Jackson, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo)

For a month, residents of Jackson, Mississippi went without clean running water. The city’s mayor says the problem’s decades in the making. That makes Jackson a lesson for the entire country. We talk America’s crumbling water system.


Donna Ladd, founding editor of the Mississippi Free Press and Jackson Free Press. (@DonnerKay)

Aaron Packman, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University.

Catherine Coleman-Flowers, environmental and climate justice activist. 2020 MacArthur Fellow for Environmental Health Advocacy. (@CathFlowers)

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Harvey Johnson, Jr., former mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.

Nancy Sylvester, director of Global Learning Connection Center, a day care for children of teenage mothers.

Interview Highlights

What happened to the water supply in Jackson, Mississippi?

Donna Ladd: “To use words that my reporter Nick Judin used, it’s a complex system collapse. And when we say that, it’s not just the technological part of the system. It’s the fact that we’ve known this for years, it’s coming in one way or another. I mean, we know it. There was a big 2013 study that warned about all of these things. So we know the conditions of them. But there’s a systemic breakdown in the willingness to actually do something about it.

“And the city itself, because, like so many cities in the U.S., because of flight, and disinvestment and losing the tax base. And in this case, losing 40,000 residents, taking us from 200,000 to 160,000. But we still have a huge land mass of city with these outdated pipes under them. So we can’t pay, we can’t afford to keep it up. … It’s a systemic breakdown of federal, state and local municipal areas being able to work together to solve problems together on basic things like infrastructure.”

What has the city of Jackson done over the past couple of decades to attend to this known problem?

Donna Ladd: “I think the best way to break it down is to say staunching the bleeding, Band-Aid approach as far as the city itself is concerned. I mean, I can’t … sit here and blame a city that is as beleaguered as our city has been for not having the resources to be able to overhaul the water system.

“Some of the numbers that we’ve come up with, the least amount that they need is $600 million. And then, as you said earlier, it keeps climbing from there. I mean, if the money’s not here, the money’s not here. So what that means is that the state should be at the same table with the city, side by side. This is the capital city.

“You know, the state is no stronger than its capital city. That’s absurd. And so they should be side by side with the city saying, OK, how are we going to work together to get federal help? What is it that we can do? How can we help? But the opposite happens. You know, one of the things our governor said just recently was, Well, you know, Jackson residents should pay their water bill, so they should go collect the water bill.

“Well, there’s a whole issue around faulty billing that we’ve been through. But beyond that, it’s like the city tried to get the state, and the state legislature passed legislation to allow payment plans for the water bill. And the governor vetoed it last year. And so that’s like working against us, and so the money doesn’t come in. But the water billing money is not enough to pay for what we’re talking about here.”

We keep using this phrase ‘crumbling.’ Is that a fair description of some of these water systems?

Aaron Packman: “Most of the infrastructure we have in the eastern half of the United States is quite old. Just for point of comparison, I live in Chicago. We’re still using the water intakes from Lake Michigan that were built in the 1960s. And in places like Philadelphia, the water infrastructure goes back 300 years. So clearly infrastructure that age needs a lot of maintenance to work properly. And it’s very hard to do, because most of the pipes are underground and inaccessible. So we definitely have an issue with its aging, deteriorating water infrastructure in a lot of the country.”

From The Reading List

Mississippi Today: “‘A profound betrayal of trust’: Why Jackson’s water system is broken” — “Janna Avalon, a 72-year-old retired newspaper editor, lived out the mid-February ice storm and weeks-long water outage just feet from South Jackson’s empty water tower.”

Mississippi Free Press: “Under the surface,: Jackson residents struggle from Neglected water system” — “What does it mean to be without water? It is innumerable small humiliations: the splash of a toilet flushed with a bucket, days on end without a shower, no clean clothes. It is weeks without a cooked meal, a sink full of unclean dishes, brushing one’s teeth with water from a bottle, if a bottle can be found.”

The Guardian: “Biden urged to back water bill amid worst US crisis in decades” — “Democratic lawmakers and advocates are urging Joe Biden to back legislation proposing unprecedented investment in America’s ailing water infrastructure amid the country’s worst crisis in decades that has left millions of people without access to clean, safe, affordable water.”

New York Times: “U.S. infrastructure earns a C– ahead of a Biden investment plan.” — “Bridges in disrepair, underfunded drinking water systems, roads riddled with potholes. President Biden’s next ambitious goal is to fix the nation’s infrastructure, and a new report suggests he has his work cut out for him.”

Mississippi Today: “As Jackson residents suffer during historic water crisis, state leaders keep their distance” — “Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann is one of the most powerful residents of Jackson, where about 40,000 of his neighbors — mostly Black — are in their third week without running water after a historic winter storm froze plant equipment and burst many water pipes.”

NBC News: “Jackson, Mississippi has a water crisis because our state legislature has a race problem” — “Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves told the media this week, ‘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.'”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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