Feds flagged dire Jackson water problems a month before the system failed
One month before the city of Jackson water system began failing, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assessment team flagged numerous system problems in a July 2022 report.
The report, obtained by Mississippi Today, documents a litany of problems contributing to the capital city’s long-running and ongoing water crisis, which threatens the health and livelihoods of its residents.
The report was written following the latest independent assessment of Jackson’s water system and was compiled jointly with the EPA and Mississippi State Department of Health. The state Department of Health is tasked with enforcing EPA safe water regulations.
For several years, the EPA has documented many problems with the Jackson water system and has entered into several binding legal agreements with the city to improve the system’s safety and reliability. Since then, federal assessment teams have checked in on the system to determine whether the city is complying with the federal agreements.
In an April 2020 emergency order, the EPA found that the Jackson water system “presented an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of persons served by the system.”
A 2021 agreement between the EPA and city of Jackson sought to correct the problems with the quality of the water. But this summer, amid continuous boil water notices and culminating with the governor issuing the state of emergency this week to try to address problems with the capital city’s water system, indications are the improvements outlined in the agreement have not been achieved.
The problems highlighted in the July 2022 report include:
Poor administration, lack of staff
The report notes the utilities manager position was vacant, which the city said was because of budget limitations. The system has no succession plan for management.
There are insufficient operators to consistently staff three shifts, seven days a week, and staff are unable to take time off without forcing remaining staff to work extra hours. Supervisors are working shifts in addition to their management responsibilities and lack of distribution system workers doesn’t allow for preventive maintenance.
Operator turnover is high, with some reporting working 75 hours a week without overtime pay.
Finances are in shambles
The report said the city was unable to provide a complete list of customers when inspectors visited, and explained that some customers receive no bills, while others receive large bills. The city could not calculate its collection rate, and said this issue isn’t expected to be resolved until late 2024.
The report said malfunctioning water meters have contributed to a 32-percent decrease in revenue. In March, the report said, the city reported 14,000 bills were “stranded,” or not sent to or received by customers. The city reported that about 50% of the water put out is “non-revenue,” and that it is unclear how much is due to meter issues or water loss.
Data from 2011 through 2022 shows discolored water complaints have been reduced in recent years, but there has been an increase in pressure complaints since 2014 and odor complaints since 2016.
Lack of routine monitoring and maintenance
In part due to lack of staff, the report says, the city fails to collect and record continuous pressure data, which could identify problems spots and prevent contamination in the system. Routine flushing of the system is not performed and valves and hydrants are not maintained.
Water in storage tanks isn’t cycled
The report says water hasn’t been cycled in and out of tanks frequently to maintain adequate chlorine levels. The report said that the Maddox and Spring Hill tanks “were not evaluated because the tank levels never change (i.e. water was not draining from or filling the tanks). The Byram water tank, the report said, “has never filled as expected,” likely because a bottling plant near the tank increased demand.
Frequent line breaks
The report said that from 2017 through 2021, the system saw average annual line breaks of 55 per 100 miles of line — far exceeding the 15 breaks per 100 miles a year that is considered safe. The study showed some areas, such as the North Jackson and Seneca Street areas have extremely high frequency of line breaks because they still use aged, small diameter cast-iron pipe.
The July 2022 report says the EPA, using federal pandemic stimulus money, has contracted with the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina to assess the financial status and operations of Jackson’s water system. The EPA report said the assessment team will consider whether it would be better for the system to be governed by an entity other than the Jackson City Council “to determine whether another model would be successful.”
Discussions about whether the city is equipped to continue to manage its water system are ongoing at the Mississippi State Capitol.
At a Tuesday afternoon news conference, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the city has been trying to follow the recommendations of the EPA. Responding to questions Tuesday from Mississippi Free Press reporter Nick Judin, who wrote about EPA concerns with the city’s recruitment of water system managers, the mayor said several steps have been taken to find additional operators for the city’s water treatment system.
Those efforts, the mayor said, having included trying to recruit people who can earn their certification as an operator, trying to contract with a third party to provide operators, entering into a national association that could provide help and bringing back retired operators on a part-time basis.
“We have committed every dollar we could find to resolve this problem,” Lumumba said.