Mississippi capital’s water disaster developed over decades

Sep 1, 2022, 1:50 AM | Updated: 5:46 pm
A trickle of water comes out of the faucet of Mary Gaines a resident of the Golden Keys Senior Livi...

A trickle of water comes out of the faucet of Mary Gaines a resident of the Golden Keys Senior Living apartments in her kitchen in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. A recent flood worsened Jackson's longstanding water system problems. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — For at least the third time in a dozen years, portable toilets are parked outside the ornate Mississippi Capitol because Jackson’s water system is in crisis.

The big “Gotta Go” trailer is just one example of the city’s desperation. Many homes, businesses and government offices have had little or no running water this week, forcing people to wait in long lines for drinking water or water to flush toilets.

The scenes testify to the near collapse of a water system that residents could not trust even in the best of times. The failure to provide such an essential service reflects decades of government dysfunction, population change and decaying infrastructure. It has also fueled a political battle in which largely white GOP state lawmakers have shown little interest in helping a mostly Black city run by Democrats.

“We’re on a budget, and we have to go buy water all the time. All the time,” said Mary Huard, whose child has been forced to shift to online schooling because in-person classes were called off due to weak water pressure.

Even before the pressure dropped, Jackson’s system was fragile, and officials had warned for years that widespread loss of service was possible. A cold snap in 2021 froze pipes and left tens of thousands of people without running water. Similar problems happened again early this year, on a smaller scale.

Broken water and sewer pipes are also common in Mississippi’s largest city. The Environmental Protection Agency told Jackson months ago that its water system violates the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The crisis deepened after heavy rain last week flooded the Pearl River and exacerbated trouble at the main water-treatment plant during the weekend.

The lines for water formed at churches, fire stations, community centers and outside big-box stores.

Outside a high school, volunteers used a pump connected to a tanker to distribute water to people who showed up with whatever empty containers they could find. One woman brought a truck bed full of empty paint buckets. A school maintenance worker hauled away a garbage container with water sloshing over the sides.

When Gov. Tate Reeves and President Joe Biden declared the situation an emergency, residents had already been advised for a month to boil their water before doing everything from brushing teeth to boiling pasta.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said fixing the problems could cost billions of dollars — far beyond Jackson’s ability to pay. That ability has been limited by a shrinking tax base that resulted from white flight, which began about a decade after public schools were integrated in 1970.

The population peaked in 1980 at nearly 203,000. It currently stands at about 150,000, with about 25% of residents living in poverty.

In the past half-century, the racial composition of Jackson has also changed. Once majority white, it is now more than 80% Black. The suburbs encircling Jackson are generally whiter and more prosperous and have newer infrastructure.

The mostly white, Republican-dominated Mississippi Legislature has been reluctant to offer assistance, even though the problems have disrupted daily life in the Capitol where lawmakers work for at least a few months every year.

The Democratic mayor and the Republican governor rarely speak to each other. And when Reeves held a news conference Monday to announce a state of emergency, Lumumba was nowhere to be seen. Reeves said he did not invite the mayor.

They held separate news conferences again Tuesday and Wednesday, although Lumumba insisted they are working as a team. By Thursday, the two finally appeared together.

“Right now, what we’re focused on is the operational unity that we have,” Lumumba said as he stood by Reeves. “Operational unity means that we’re focused more on our common ends and objectives than any differences that we may have revealed at some point in time.”

Reeves frequently criticizes Jackson for its crime rate and has said the city’s water problems stem from shoddy management.

“I know that the team at the state Department of Health as well as the EPA has been working tirelessly since 2016 trying to convince the city to come into compliance with the orders that have been put forth. They were generally unsuccessful at that,” Reeves said Monday.

Cecil Brown is a Democrat who represented part of Jackson in the Mississippi House for 16 years before serving on the state Public Service Commission. He urged city, state and congressional leaders to work together.

“If you don’t like each other, it’s OK, let’s say, ‘If we can’t work together, let’s put our staff together,” Brown said in an interview Thursday.

The governor has blocked some efforts to alleviate the water woes. After the city hired a private contractor to handle water billing, some customers went months without receiving bills, while others skipped payments.

In 2020, Reeves vetoed legislation that would have let Jackson forgive at least a portion of the unpaid water bills for poor people. He took a more passive approach in 2021, allowing water-payment legislation to become law by letting the proposal sit for five days without his signature.

Lumumba has complained that Mississippi, a state with almost a 40% Black population, is often overlooked by national Democrats and taken for granted by Republicans.

Criticism about the Jackson water debacle is not strictly partisan.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose district includes most of Jackson, said in mid-August that Jackson leaders had not provided specific proposals for improvements.

“The city fathers and mothers will have to step up, produce that plan that we can begin to sell from Jackson to Washington,” Thompson told television station WJTV.

An infrastructure bill signed into law last year by Biden is designed to address problems like Jackson’s, but it’s unclear how much of that money the Mississippi capital will receive.

At the same time, Mississippi is slashing taxes. This year, Reeves signed the state’s largest-ever tax cut, which will reduce revenue by an estimated $185 million the first year and $525 million the final year.

The governor argued that cutting the income tax would “lead to more wealth for all Mississippians,” even as one of the poorest states in the nation struggles to support schools and rural hospitals.

Reeves has not said whether he will call a special session of the Legislature before January to consider aid for Jackson. Any proposals will face opposition from some Republicans who say the state should not rescue Jackson from its predicament.

But Republican state Sen. Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula, along the Gulf Coast, said he is willing to help if the aid includes an accountability plan.

“The state ‘bailing out’ the city after what appears to be decades long neglect & failed leadership violates my sense of accountability & conservative principles,” Wiggins wrote on Twitter. He added that he remembers government aid after Hurricane Katrina.

“In the end, it’s about the safety of Jackson’s citizens & its economic viability,” Wiggins said.

Even when Jackson is not under a boil-water notice, Sharon Epps said she buys bottled water for her family because she doesn’t trust the tap water. She said her landlord replaced a broken line that spewed raw sewage into the back yard.

“When you can’t use the bathroom like you want to, and it’s floating in your back yard, that’s the saddest part about it. And then you can’t sit out in the back yard because it smells so bad,” Epps said. “It’s a disaster, baby.”

___

Associated Press Writer Michael Goldberg contributed to this report. Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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Mississippi capital’s water disaster developed over decades