Running water returns in Mississippi capital – but it’s still undrinkable

RResidents in Mississippi’s majority-black capital city of Jackson now have water coming from their taps once again, but still have to boil it before drinking it, as they’ve had to come in intermittently over the years.

It is a step up from last week’s situation, when floods affected the city’s dilapidated main water treatment plant and essentially disrupted water supplies throughout the city, affecting more than 160,000 residents.

Even though emergency efforts have restored running water, the question remains whether there will be a more permanent solution. Some of the city’s pipes are nearly a century old, and Jackson is also the target of ongoing lawsuits from residents who say its old lead pipes poisoned them and stunted their growth as children.

The crisis has focused on America’s aging water infrastructure, and whether it is fit for purpose amid the increasing severity of weather events related to the climate crisis. It has also sparked discussion about the role systemic racism plays in the water infrastructure crisis affecting majority-black cities across the country.

“This water system broke down over several years and it would be wrong to claim that it was completely resolved in less than a week.” Mississippi Republican Governor Tate Reeves said in an update earlier this week. “There may be worse days in the future. However, we have reached a place where the people of Jackson can trust that tap water can flow, toilets can be flushed and fires can be put out. ,

As of Friday, signs of progress were clear as children in Jackson’s public schools returned to their classes last week after learning at home, as they often did in the pandemic.

Water quality testing is still in the early stages, while some residents continue to report coffee colored water in their tap, Once full testing begins, two days of successful testing at multiple sites across the city is needed for health officials to declare Jackson’s water safe to drink. But the emergency fixes are just patches on a sick, aging system that could break down at any time – as happened during the 2021 winter freeze that left residents without water for nearly a month.

Jackson’s persistent water problem makes daily life difficult for residents and business owners. This includes notices of boiling water that can last for weeks or longer. Before the most recent failure, John Tierre, who owns Johnny T’s Bistro & Blues in downtown Jackson, said his business was already losing thousands of dollars due to spending weeks under boil water notices.

“First, you have to start a few hours early. That’s already labor in itself, whatever you’re paying per hour,” he told the Mississippi Free Press in late August. “You have to go in and start boiling water for everything you’re going to use in the service. Not only do we have to boil water for the dishes, for the bar, for the glasses, but also to buy ice.” , canned soda, bottled water, things of that nature are $200 or $300 a day.

State officials are discussing a number of possible solutions for a sustainable solution, including privatizing Jackson’s water system. “Privatization is on the table,” Governor Reeves said earlier this week. The city’s Democratic mayor Chokwe Antar Lumba has also discussed hiring private contractors to operate and maintain the water system.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumba discusses Jackson’s water crisis with EPA Administrator, Michael Regan, and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves. Photograph: Rogelio V Solis/AP

Privatization of water infrastructure could prove controversial. Jackson’s own recent experience with a private corporation proved disastrous for the city as it signed a 2010 contract with German multinational conglomerate Siemens to install water meters and oversee its water billing system. But Siemens’ system was faulty, and residents would go months without receiving water bills, while others received bills far heavier than they used to.

The deal cost the city hundreds of millions in unpaid water fees and led to a lengthy lawsuit that only recovered a portion of what the city lost after legal fees. The defeat cost the city precious resources that could have gone toward improving old water systems. “We have to make sure we have a billing system in place that bills everyone who gets water,” Governor Reeves told the Guardian.

Officials say Jackson needs more than $1 billion to fix its underlying problems and prevent a recurrence of the 2021 and 2022 crises. But in a city where residents often have to drive around potholes filled with old tires and orange traffic barrels for years, that kind of money isn’t easy to come by.

This week, federal and local officials gathered in the beleaguered city said it needed to formulate a plan to overhaul its water system so that Mississippi and national governments can assess its needs and provide assistance. EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Jackson could be eligible for tens of millions in US government debt in addition to money under Joe Biden’s recent infrastructure package, but “we need to see a plan that shows those How the resources will be spent and what will be spent on them.

On 29 August, Mayor Lumumba vowed to appoint “a full-scale committee of persons working towards the execution and production of that plan”. As of September 9, he still had not done so.

Although water problems are becoming more acute as infrastructure ages, the issue has plagued Jackson leaders for decades, often with complaints that state leaders weren’t doing enough to help their capital city. . In an interview with the Guardian, former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson, who served from 1997 to 2005 and again from 2009 to 2013, warned that a properly funded plan could take decades to implement.

“I think if you’re talking about a water system, obviously you need a plan that shows what’s needed to improve the system. And usually it’s over 20 years. Happens over a period of time,” he said. “I think it’s like getting lost in the whole discussion: none of it happens over a short period of time.”

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