Jackson water crisis flows from century of poverty, neglect and racism

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Jackson water crisis flows from century of poverty, neglect and racism

More than a century before failing infrastructure left Jackson, Mississippi, without running water this summer, thousands of the capital city’s residents gathered in a park downtown to celebrate the new water filtration plant that promised to turn the muddy liquid flowing into people’s taps into “clean, pure water.”

People poured in from nearby schools and factories to witness history that morning in November 1914, according to the account in the Jackson Daily

Train whistles blew, cheerleaders carried large banners, and city leaders spoke from a stage decorated with flags, pennants and bunting.

“Our historic capital city has many causes for congratulation,” said Edgar S. Wilson, a prominent and politically connected businessman who presided over the event, “but clear water is her crowning glory, her greatest asset; a blessing that will pass from generation to generation.”

Today, Jackson’s water system is a symbol of national embarrassment, highlighted by this August’s crisis that deprived more than 170,000 people of water to drink, wash or flush toilets.

It was the latest in a series of water-related problems plaguing the state’s biggest city. They include frequent line breaks, shut-offs, boil-water notices and an ongoing exposure to toxic lead and harmful bacteria. Jackson consistently has been in violation of safe drinking water standards since at least 2018 and has been under a federal order since 2020 to fix a host of issues impacting its water system. A 2013 consent decree Jackson entered with state and federal agencies requiring it to fix its beleaguered wastewater system also remains in effect.

Even now, the system continues to teeter on the brink of failure. It strained to meet the demand of an additional 55,000 people who attended Jackson State University’s homecoming game against Campbell University on Oct. 22. An even larger crowd is expected Saturday for JSU’s game against Southern University with ESPN’s “College GameDay” in town. Residents were warned on Monday that this could again push the water system to the limit and were urged to ration water usage.

State officials have blamed leaders of the predominantly Black city for fiscal mismanagement and neglect. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in a recent statement called the situation “a crisis of incompetence” and pointed a finger directly at Jackson’s mayor.

City leaders, meanwhile, accuse state officials of the predominantly white legislative and executive branches of ignoring their cries for help. Democratic Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba during an interview earlier this year with Mississippi Today called state lawmakers’ attitudes toward Jackson “paternalistic” and “racist.” During a press conference in September, he told residents not to trust the state.

But a USA TODAY Network investigation reveals that the foundation for these current failures was laid decades ago and problems compounded as the city evolved. Since then, city leaders and state officials alike have abandoned civility in lieu of finger pointing and steered the system into a collision course with disaster. 

Reporters combed through more than a century of newspaper archives, decades of the city’s annual financial statements, water quality reports and studies of the municipal system over the years, as well as recent lawsuits and orders against the city for violating drinking water standards. They also interviewed more than a dozen residents, city and state officials and former workers of the water system who shared firsthand knowledge of the problems. 

The reporting found a complex story of population decline, poverty, racism, politics, mismanagement and . But key details emerged that, when pieced together, paint a portrait of a water system that was flawed from the start and worsened exponentially over the years as those in power seemingly lost control. 

The system was cobbled together over the course of several administrations into a needlessly complicated operation with several moving parts. Complaints about bad water were rampant early on, and the system, unlike most Mississippi communities, relies mostly on surface water instead of cleaner, simpler wells. 

Jackson now has some 1,000 miles of water mains and two treatment plants: the original one, named J.H. Fewell, that can draw up to 25 million gallons a day from the Pearl River; and another one that opened in 1993, named O.B. Curtis, that can draw twice as much from the manmade Ross Barnett Reservoir located northeast of the city. The O.B. Curtis plant uses two different types of filtration systems to treat the water – conventional and membrane, making it tricky to manage.

Further complicating things, Jackson also operates a small system of wells that rely on groundwater and serve about 16,000 customers in the southern part of the city and nearby Byram.

“Until someone disputes this, and no one has been able to, you have probably the most complex water treatment facility in the country,” Lumumba said at a community meeting last month.

The original plant and piping that was laid more than a century ago started reaching the end of their lifespans just as Jackson’s population began to decline and its wealthier white residents fled for the suburbs. By the time Jackson elected its first Black mayor in 1997, the system was already in desperate need of repair but lacked the customer base to afford the then-$300 million worth of improvements. 

The price tag for those and other improvements has ballooned over the years to an estimated $1 billion as one administration after the next postponed infrastructure projects amid a dwindling revenue stream. Although the city collected some $900 million from customers over the past two decades, it lost nearly a half billion dollars in unbilled and unpaid usage during the same time from rampant theft and a botched metering and billing system. 

Meanwhile, the city failed to keep its plants fully staffed and functionally operating, leading to a deterioration of water conditions. Jackson has racked up multiple state and federal drinking water violations in the past five years and, in 2020, got hit with an emergency order by the Environmental Protection Agency. It must now commit to costly improvements to remedy the problems but lacks the funds to do it. 

As Jackson struggles, state leaders have done little to help. Every year since at least 2018, Jackson has sought financial assistance from the Legislature to improve its water system. And every year, those bills have died in committee.

“We’re at a reckoning point,” said Leigh Terry, assistant professor of environmental engineering at The University of Alabama. “We’re going to see more of these cases come up if we don’t invest and do the maintenance needed to replace these pipes, and pump systems and everything that often gets neglected.”

Jackson’s water woes are extreme but not rare. They’re endemic of a problem plaguing cities from coast to coast, as failures from aging infrastructure outpace funding for improvements.

But Jackson’s residents are particularly hard hit. Nearly 84% of them are minorities, and one in four 1 in 4 lives in poverty. Many struggle to pay their bills, much less buy bottled water every time the system strains. 

“I can’t even count how many times we’ve been on boil-water notice with the main gaskets breaking and the pipes breaking in the wintertime,” said Evelyn Fletcher, a federal building inspector who moved to Jackson 13 years ago. “I feel that God allowed this situation to be exposed across America, and even other countries, so we could get the assistance that we really need. I feel like it was God’s timing because we’ve been going through it for a while.”

A fire that led to water

The state of Mississippi took its name from the mighty waterway slicing through the country, but it was the lesser-known Pearl River that gave rise to the state’s capital. 

Jackson was established as the seat of government in 1821 in part because of its proximity to the Pearl, which cuts down the center of the state. But it wasn’t until a fire threatened to consume the city’s business district six decades later that the river became its life force.

The 1884 blaze had left firefighters scrambling for water, so local leaders devised a plan to pump the Pearl. This would ensure a steady supply of water for drinking, bathing and fire protection. In April 1889, the “Water Works Co.” began operations, delivering “pure, healthful river water” through a network of underground pipes, according to newspaper archives.

But it was not without its problems. The untreated river water was subject to contamination from bacteria and pollutants. Sometimes it arrived in people’s homes full of mud.

Residents soon looked to artesian wells as a solution and, in 1910, voted to create a new system from these free-flowing underground springs. “We want artesian water,” a Jackson Daily News headline demanded that year. But, by 1912, the company hired to drill the wells could produce just 2.5 million gallons of water a day – not enough for the city’s 4 million gallon per day requirement. 

Jackson’s groundwater is limited because the city sits on top of an inactive volcano, which stunted the formation of the area’s underground aquifers as they developed over the eons. Because they formed on top of the existing volcano, they’re shallower and thinner than usual, said Bill Oakley, a geologist who worked for decades for the U.S. Geological Survey and still consults on well projects throughout Mississippi.

To reach the desired capacity would be costly, engineers said in 1912. It would mean drilling additional wells and maintaining gasoline engines or electric motors for pumping. This forced the city to consider two other options: either drawing ground water from shallow wells in nearby Rankin County or building a filtration plant to purify water from the Pearl River. 

The matter was decided in one afternoon in April 1913 when then-Mayor Swepson James Taylor and an ad-hoc commission of prominent citizens determined that “filtration of the Pearl river supply is Jackson’s only solution to the water problem,” according to an account from the Jackson Daily News.

Limited groundwater supplies forced their hand, Oakley said. But in choosing filtered river water, Jackson diverged from the path most Mississippi communities would take.

All but 15 of the more than 1,000 community water systems in Mississippi pull from ground sources, according to EPA records. Of those that use surface water, most purchase it from the Northeast Mississippi Regional Water Supply District, which draws water from the Tombigbee River.

Although it has its problems, groundwater from wells and aquifers is generally cleaner and easier to treat. It usually contains less bacteria and is of a higher and more consistent quality. By contrast, surface water from lakes, rivers and reservoirs can vary dramatically depending on where and when it’s collected, and it generally has more contaminants, sediments and debris to be filtered out. 

Memphis, Tennessee, which initially relied on the Wolf River as its primary source of drinking water, faced a similar dilemma as Jackson in the late 1800s, especially after a deadly outbreak of Yellow Fever that swept the region was linked to unsanitary water. But unlike Jackson, Memphis could tap into an abundant aquifer and continues to tout its clean water to this day. 

Memphis’ municipal water system has had no violations or enforcement actions in at least five years, EPA records show. Jackson, meanwhile, has 176 violation points and more than 70 enforcement actions during the same time period. 

As state and federal regulations over drinking water have stiffened over the decades, it has become more challenging to staff Jackson’s water system. It takes up to six years of training and a Class A certification to operate a surface water treatment plant, which requires someone onsite 24 hours a day. 

Jackson consistently has struggled to hire and retain enough operators to run its system. This stems from a combination of low wages, high training requirements and a dearth of other surface water systems from which to recruit talent. 

In choosing surface water, Jackson created for itself a host of challenges. But, in the view of Jason Barrett, associate extension professor with the Mississippi Water Resources Research Institute, 

Jackson’s decision was not a fatal flaw. Other cities – like Atlanta, Birmingham and Nashville – also pull from surface water sources without nearly the issues facing their Mississippi neighbor. 

“I don’t think Jackson’s issue is the quality of the source,” Barrett said. “I think Jackson’s problem is management.”

The rise and fall of a city

Jackson’s population, which hovered just above 21,000 when it opened its first filtration plant, continually swelled over the next few decades as it matured from a dusty river town to a bustling metropolis. 

More than 60,000 people called Jackson home by the start of the second World War, and the city was laying hundreds of miles of new pipes to accommodate the steady influx of households, schools and businesses. The filtration plant, which could pull just 4 million gallons of water a day from the Pearl River when it opened, was pumping up to twice that much by the mid-1940s.

Water quality problems and line breakages were common during those early years, newspaper records show, but it wasn’t until January 1944 that Jackson experienced its first widespread water loss. After a valve in the pumping station broke, the entire system shut down for two days and caused a panic among residents. 

“For 30 years, the Waterworks department has efficiently operated,” then-Mayor Walter A. Scott told the at the time. “It has never before been completely broken down or shut down as it was from Friday until Sunday at 3 p.m.”

It was a harbinger of things to come as the city’s population continued to grow, putting additional strain on an already aging system. The next three decades saw a series of annexations – including one in 1976 that was called the largest in state history – that more than doubled Jackson’s geographic footprint to some 120 square miles and boosted its population to over 200,000 people.

By 1979, the state Board of Health issued a grave warning that Jackson’s main surface water system was operating near capacity. The city should add no new homes or industries until fixing its “problem-ridden water treatment system,” according to a Clarion Ledger article at the time. 

“It is clearly evident that some of the water problems were inherited with city expansions,” the board said. “Other problems are due to continuing neglect of adequate operation and maintenance procedures and lack of adequate planning and foresight by city officials for many years.”

The public scolding led to the approval of $4.4 million in water infrastructure improvements the following year, but it was not enough.

Just as Jackson was making plans for the biggest expansion its water system had seen in decades – its second water treatment plant, the O.B. Curtis – its population and pocketbook was were about to shrink from the reverberations of societal upheaval that had started years earlier.

Mississippi, like many Southern states, went through a period of dramatic changes in the 1960s and 1970s as a system of legal white supremacy and violent oppression of Black people gave way to the expanding movement. The federal government struck down the separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws that defined the way of life across the South and forced the integration of

Southerners largely balked at these changes. But in 1969, a decision finally forced Mississippi and other holdouts to begin desegregating. For Jackson municipal schools, the change came in 1970.

“Forty percent of the student body is gone overnight with desegregation in the city of Jackson,” said Robert Luckett, a historian at Jackson State University.  “Their parents are the political, social, economic, religious leaders of the state of Mississippi, and when they withdraw their children from the public schools – when they themselves withdraw from the city – you begin seeing almost immediately the subsequent withdrawal of support for all things Jackson.” 

White people, which had represented nearly two of every three  residents in 1960, accounted for just one in two by 1980 – and just one in six  by 2020. 

Their exodus coincided with sweeping new federal mandates. The Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, both passed in the 1970s, required most cities to invest in significant improvements to be able to comply with the strict new standards on testing and contaminant thresholds. 

Jackson was no exception, but not long after these rules kicked in, the federal government started to phase out its generous infrastructure grants in lieu of loans that municipalities would have to pay back. It was a double whammy for the capital city.

“I’m not sure you can point to any period in time and say, ‘this is when the problem occurred,’” former Mayor Harvey Johnson told USA TODAY in a recent interview. “But once the federal government took away its grant funding mechanism, that’s when local governments had to start relying on their own resources to get the job done. It especially hurt communities like Jackson with high incidents of poverty and low-income neighborhoods.”

Cozy relationship frays

Johnson was elected in 1997, and his ascension into office marked a historical milestone as the first time an African-American won the city’s mayor’s race. 

That distinction came with a new set of problems. Whatever cozy relationship might have existed between Jackson’s white mayors and the state’s majority white leadership was over now. Johnson and the Black mayors that came after him have faced skepticism and distrust when seeking financial aid for the struggling water system.

When the state approved a 1% sales tax for Jackson water improvements in 2009, lawmakers wouldn’t let the city control the funds. They instead created a nine-person commission outside the city’s purview to oversee and approve the tax fund’s expenditures. Johnson noted that the state placed no such restrictions on a similar sales tax for Tupelo, a majority white city in northeast Mississippi.

More recently, when Jackson received funds, the legislature singled out the city for extra oversight of its spending. And a bill that would have given Jackson an additional $42 million beyond what the ARPA rescue funds provided died in committee earlier this year.

State Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat from Jackson who works with local leaders to represent in the state house, said the lack of continuity in Jackson’s leadership has prevented the city from adopting a “long-term vision.”

“It takes more than a term to become familiar with the problems and how to address them and how to get the votes on the local level to pass it,” Frazier said.

And the plans that were in place often needed more money to actually be carried out, but lawmakers were hesitant to give Jackson more money after years of mismanagement.

Frazier said a popular sentiment in the capitol is, “Why should we send resources that they might squander?”

Reeves said in September the city doesn’t have a plan to fix its water woes and doubted it could be relied upon to provide one, echoing a sentiment that has rippled across the executive branch in recent weeks. In October, he issued a press release criticizing Lumumba’s handling of the water crisis and accusing him of acting in bad faith.

Lumumba disputed that he has no plan to fix the water system. During a September press conference, the mayor held up several documents outlining needed repairs and associated costs – documents he said he had previously shared with state elected officials. He also named previous Black mayors, including his father, who died in office in 2014, and said they, too, had tried to work with the state on this issue.

“The reality is that (former Mayor) Tony Yarber asked for money to deal with this issue. The reality is that my father asked for money to deal with this challenge,” Lumumba said. “I know that Mayor Harvey Johnson asked for money to deal with this challenge.”

USA TODAY Network reached out to both Reeves and Lumumba through their representatives, but neither was made available for comment.

Theft, broken promises and distrust

As the cost to fix Jackson’s problems climbs, the city’s utility revenues are in a freefall. 

Despite raising water and sewer rates several times in the past two decades, Jackson has struggled to generate enough revenue to keep the operation financially solvent. 

Part of the issue is its dwindling customer base. Jackson has lost utility sales as its population declines and major customers like schools and hospitals disconnect from the system in lieu of more stable sources of water like wells. 

But it’s also because of rampant theft by residents who altered meters and connections to avoid paying for water, as well as by city workers who circumvented the billing system and bribed customers to give them cash in exchange for wiping out their monthly bills. A pair of investigations, one launched in 2015 and the other in 2019, nabbed more than two dozen people in a scheme that then-Public Works Director Bob Miller called “the worst I’ve ever seen.” 

But perhaps the biggest culprit is a faulty water meter and billing system installed by German technology company Siemens as part of a $91 million contract signed in 2012. 

The meters didn’t link up to the billing system as promised, measured usage incorrectly and resulted in some customers getting overcharged while others didn’t get billed at all. The city sued Siemens and settled in 2020 for about $90 million, but Jackson is still reeling from the mess and doesn’t anticipate a resolution until late 2024.

“In my household, we have not gotten the bill in five months,” said Fletcher, the Jackson resident. “We’ve called to the city water department to ask about the bill, and they said, ‘Oh, we haven’t gotten you a bill yet.’ So we’re just holding our breath to see what five months of a bill will look like.”

Utility sales to customers, which in 2014 reached a peak of more than $69 million, fell to less than $48 million in 2020, the latest year for which data was available. 

Meanwhile, its accounts receivables — mainly unpaid water bills — continued to climb. In 2003, Jackson was owed some $6 million in unpaid bills. By 2020, that number reached nearly $55 million. Customers now owe the city more than they’ve paid.

“It’s kind of like the frog in the pot,” said Quentin Whitwell, who served on the Jackson City Council from 2011-2014. “You’re in water and don’t realize it’s boiling until it’s too late. My observation today is that, you know, it all came to that boiling point, and everybody was caught off guard.”

When the system finally snaps

As the city’s financial fortunes have faltered, so too has its ability to keep its water department fully staffed. Over the last two decades, former plant employees said, the institutional knowledge needed to operate a complex system such as Jackson’s was depleted as longtime workers became dissatisfied and left. 

Employment at the water plants became top heavy with managers who knew little about the operations, while experienced workers got squeezed out, said Ronald Gilbert, who started in 1995 as an operator at J.H. Fewell before moving to operation supervisor at O.B. Curtis. 

Gilbert said the system, which always struggled on a shoestring budget, started to strain in the late 1990s. By the time he left in 2005, he said, things were getting worse.

“Not enough money, natural age and loss of skilled people,” Gilbert said. “You put that together, and anything’s going to fail.”

Gilbert said that during his tenure, the city operated its water system with a crew of about 35 people. In January 2020, just seven people were working in the entire water department, city records show. 

The city council approved across-the-board pay raises for plant operators in November 2021. But the increase did not alleviate staffing concerns in the way city administrators had hoped.

Jackson’s water system now has so few operators that some are forced to work up to 75 hours a week without overtime pay just to cover all the shifts, and supervisors are taking on the extra load in addition to their managerial duties, according to an assessment of the city’s water system conducted earlier this year.

The staffing shortages have contributed to widespread failures, including the inability to routinely monitor and maintain the system to prevent pressure loss and water contamination, a fact seized upon by the Environmental Protection Agency during a February 2020 site visit to the facility amid ongoing concerns. 

Inspectors also found numerous leaks and line breaks – as many as five or six a day – leading to a loss of water pressure and requiring the city to issue boil-water notices. In just four years, the report noted, Jackson had sent out more than 750 such notices.

The EPA slapped Jackson with an emergency administrative order citing numerous problems, including inadequate staffing, high sediment levels and poor corrosion control, all of which put consumers’ health at risk. Jackson must now implement a comprehensive plan to address the issues, but it told the EPA it lacks the funds to make improvements. 

It wasn’t the first time the city has run afoul of safe drinking water regulations. In 2016, the Mississippi Department of Health notified Jackson that several of its water samples exceeded the maximum amount of allowable lead – 15 parts per billion. The state determined that the O.B. Curtis plant had a failing corrosion control system, which is supposed to prevent lead and copper in the pipes from dissolving into the drinking water.

Jackson was ordered to fix this problem, but it continues to rack up violations for non-compliance. According to a recent notice the city distributed to customers, from “2018 to 2022, we failed to consistently meet treatment technique requirements for our system which is a violation of the Lead and Copper Rule and a requirement of the City’s Optimized Corrosion Control Plan.”

In addition to increased state and federal oversight, the city also now faces a series of lawsuits from citizens claiming they’ve been poisoned by lead and plagued by water shutoffs. This summer’s crisis was just the latest to leave Jackson residents without water for long periods of time – they faced a similar scenario after a February 2021 ice storm deprived them of water for weeks.

The most recent of these lawsuits, filed in September, claimed Jackson leaders have long ignored the need to upgrade the system and could have avoided all of this had they just done their jobs.

“The people of Jackson, like all people in this country, deserve access to clean and safe water,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a statement after meeting with Jackson officials in September. “They also deserve more than words – they need action.”

That the city’s water system would collapse amid finger-pointing and federal oversight was likely far from the minds of those who celebrated its first filtration plant that cold November day more than a century ago.

But at least one person there felt the occasion held a lesson for future Jacksonians. Speaking to the crowd of how the city put aside differing opinions and rallied around the plan to filter river water, then-City Attorney William Hemingway called the plant a “monument to harmony and unity of purpose.” He said it should remind people of the value of working together.

“And if at any time discord comes among us,” Hemingway said, “let us look to this matter and give up personal matters for the common good.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local news collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes  the Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Today, MCIR, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.