JACKSON, Mississippi — The water crisis in the city of Jackson is far from over, city officials and community activists say in response to Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declaring that water pressure has been restored and is safe to drink.
Reeves lifted the six-week boiling water emergency on Sept. 15 and announced the state would stop distributing bottled water to residents of Jackson, a city of 180,000 people, 80% of whom are African American. He also insisted that his emergency decree gave him authority over Jackson’s water supply and suggested privatizing the system.
“We’ve been here before where we’ve fixed water pressure issues and lifted boiled water evidence,” Democratic Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said last week after workers restored water pressure. “We’ve had many emergencies involving boiled water, and when the looming threat is over, those in leadership positions suddenly back down, leaving us to contend with a fragile water system. It’s not a question of if this will happen again, but when.”
In fact, a day after Reeves’ announcement, a boiling water alert went into effect for parts of Jackson. On September 19, workers evacuated the OB Curtis Plant, Jackson’s primary water treatment facility, after a chlorine leak was discovered.
In addition, the Ministry of Health warned pregnant women and young children to exercise caution before using or consuming tap water because of the high levels of lead in water. Jackson residents have suffered four boiling water emergencies since June.
Lumumba and community advocacy organizations have clashed sharply with Reeves and GOP legislation over the crisis. They accuse them of deliberately divesting themselves of the city’s infrastructure and continuing attempts at privatization.
“This is an extremely dangerous move for Jackson residents,” said Danyelle Holmes of the Poor People’s Campaign and Rapid Response Coalition, a partnership between the city and 30 advocacy groups.
“Extremely racist policies have hijacked our city and state, putting lives at risk. Even before this crisis, the water wasn’t safe,” Holmes said. “This is a decades-long failure to allocate the resources of the city of Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, the poorest state in the country. It’s not just happening here, it’s happening across the state.”
Even if the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) stops distributing water, the PPC and RRC, which have been distributing bottled water for the past two years, will continue to provide it to residents. The groups are planning a mass action on September 26 to demand more state and federal funding and to oppose privatization.
“We say the water isn’t clean until it meets all EPA standards,” Holmes said.
The Jackson water crisis is decades in the making. It results from systemic racism in state funding, which divested the city’s infrastructure and schools after the white flight to the suburbs, and cuts in federal spending on water systems dating back to the 1970s.
The water treatment system was shut down in February 2021 when a winter storm froze pipes and damaged equipment. Indications of boiled water as well as discolored and cloudy water have been standard for decades.
The latest crisis was caused by outages at both water treatment plants stemming from record rains in late August that caused the Pearl River to flood parts of the city and inundate the system. The water pressure in the system dropped and became dangerously contaminated.
State emergency declared
Reeves declared a state of emergency. Then, on September 6, President Biden declared an emergency and dispatched FEMA to help restore the water treatment plant and provide emergency relief in coordination with state and city efforts. Federal officials, including EPA Administrator Michael Regan, have visited the city and the EPA inspector general has launched an investigation into the causes of the crisis.
Environmental justice activists say the crisis is unresolved and will only get worse because aging and fragile infrastructure cannot cope with the more frequent extreme weather events caused by the climate crisis.
Lumumba said the city appreciates the emergency federal funding to get the system up and running again. But instead of the piecemeal fixes made after each crisis, Lumumba is calling for replacing the 100-year-old system, which his government estimates will cost $1 billion. The city and state will get millions under the American Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, but that won’t be enough to address the crisis or rebuild the system.
Blaming city officials for the crisis, Reeves made no secret of his ultimate goal of stripping Jackson of home rule and privatizing the system. State officials have already met with potential vendors, and there are indications that lawmakers plan to call a special session to expedite approval.
Lumumba and community organizations strongly oppose the state takeover because of a history of racism leading to unequal treatment and neglect of Jackson. They say the privatization of water, which they believe is a public good, will result in cuts in services and higher prices for the city’s residents, many of whom live in abject poverty.
They accuse the Reeves administration and the white GOP legislative leaders of engaging in a long-term, deliberate racist divestment in the city. The state then uses the ensuing crises as a pretext to privatize city assets. In addition to the water treatment plant, the state has attempted to privatize Jackson Municipal Airport.
The city has good reason to fear privatization. The $17 billion global corporation Siemens convinced the city to give it a contract to modernize the water meter and billing services. The city issued a $200 million bond to pay for it and ended up being ripped off and in worse shape. Jackson sued Siemens, but it will be years before the city can repay the bond debt.
Reeves claimed the city government lacks a plan to fix the system, but city officials and community organizations see this as a ploy to deflect attention from the state’s responsibility for causing the crisis. Not only does the city have a plan, Lumumba told journalist Roland Martin, but he and the previous mayors of Jackson have submitted plans that the state refuses to even recognize.
Lumumba said ninety percent of Jackson residents voted to “self-tax” themselves with an additional percent to increase revenue for urgent repairs to water treatment infrastructure. But a commission set up by the state legislature to approve all of these taxes refused to endorse them.
Reeves also vetoed an infrastructure bill passed in 2020 that would have helped millions to modernize Jackson and the state’s water treatment systems. The state had a $1 billion surplus, mostly due to tax revenue from Jackson, the state’s largest city, and federal aid to Mississippi, which accounts for 40% of the state budget.
Mississippi has the highest poverty rate nationwide and ranks third in terms of how dependent the state budget is on federal aid, despite rejection of the Medicaid expansion and associated funds. The state education system has been underfunded by $279 million annually and $3.3 billion since 2008.
The Reeves administration was dogged by a scandal. During his time as lieutenant governor, Reeves pressured the Department of Transportation to spend $2 million to build a front road that was built between his mansion and a shopping mall, while refusing government funding for infrastructure needs.
Now Reeves is embroiled in a new scandal. Reports accuse him of obstructing an investigation into the diversion of $77 million from TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) to his cronies, including ex-football player Brett Favre, a professional wrestler, a horse farm and volleyball complex, and state officials to have .
The Jackson water crisis and similar crises in Flint, Baltimore, Chicago, St. Joseph, Mich., Salt Lake, Hawaii and other cities are canaries in the coal mine. They warn of a far deeper and broader nationwide water and sanitation crisis that will require massive federal funding.