As a water crisis persists in Jackson, Mississippi, where brown water or nothing at all is coming out of residents’ faucets, authorities are scrambling to get a failing water treatment plant plagued with issues from decades of deferred maintenance back online.
The issue has upended life in the city of roughly 150,000 residents, where schools are shuttered, businesses are forced to adapt and people have had to wait in long lines for bottled water they can use to cook or brush their teeth.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told CNN Wednesday he is optimistic the water can be restored to residents this week. “But there is a huge mountain to climb in order to achieve that,” he added.
Recent torrential rains and river flooding pushed the city’s already deteriorating main treatment plant – the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant – to fail, leaving it unable to consistently pump out clean water.
On Wednesday, a rental pump was installed at the facility that authorities believe will help add an additional 4 million gallons of water a day into the system. The state also contracted with outside operators to begin work on critical emergency repairs.
“We’re flushing bad water out of the system and making mechanical improvements to prevent an even more catastrophic failure,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said during a Wednesday news conference.
But even as fixes are made, there have been interruptions in the system that are causing low water pressure or no water at all for Jackson residents, and the governor warned, “there will be future interruptions … they are not avoidable at this point.”
As operators race to address water pressure issues, there remains a water quality problem. The city has been under a boil-water notice since late July.
“Our immediate priority is to have running water, even temporarily sacrificing some quality standards where we absolutely have to, to fulfill basic sanitary and safety needs,” Reeves said, urging residents not to drink the water without boiling it.
“We are hopeful that we will be able to increase the quantity of the water which will ultimately get the tanks more full and ultimately lead to a scenario in which we can do the proper testing and actually produce clean water,” the governor said. “But we’re not there yet.”
While authorities rush to make repairs, bring in needed parts and deal with staffing shortages at Jackson’s water plants, the crisis is upending daily life for residents.
They are seeing cloudy, discolored water coming out of their faucets, and are being told it should be adequate for sanitation purposes. They can’t use the water to drink, cook or wash dishes, but officials said they can shower and wash their hands in it.
“Please make sure in the shower that your mouth is not open,” Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of health protection at the Mississippi Department of Health told residents Wednesday, adding pets should also not consume the water.
According to the mayor, it’s unknown when residents will no longer have to boil water and that can’t be assessed until the water pressure returns to normal.
In the meantime, all Jackson public schools shifted to virtual learning Tuesday. Jackson State University also shifted to online classes this week and set up portable showers and toilets across campus.
“It’s like we’re living in a nightmare right now,” sophomore Erin Washington told CNN. Another student described seeing brown, smelly water coming out of faucets on campus.
Local businesses, still trying to recover from Covid-19 related setbacks, are also struggling to stay afloat. The most affected business sector is the city’s hospitality industry, said Jeff Rent, president and CEO at Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership.
“Hotels and restaurants, already on thin margins, either cannot open or they have to make special accommodations including the purchase of ice, water and soft drinks,” Rent said.
Father of five Kehinde Gaynor said the current water shortage has been frustrating for his family.
“It’s devastating as a father because we are the providers for the family. Right now, we are just crippled because we have no control over what’s happening on the outside of the home,” Gaynor said.
Residents have had to endure long lines to get bottled water and non-drinking water at distribution sites operated by the city. The operation saw difficulties this week, with some sites running out of water and people being turned away.
The governor said “supersites” will be up and running Thursday, making more water available to residents with help of the National Guard.
President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for Jackson, and Reeves said it will allow Mississippi to tap into critical resources to respond to the crisis.
Authorities knew it was only a matter of time before the aging water treatment plant failed. The main pumps at O.B. Curtis were severely damaged earlier this summer and replaced with smaller backup pumps, Reeves said this week without elaborating on the damage.
While improvements were made to the system with the installation of the temporary pump Wednesday, there are substantial mechanical and electrical issues that remain due to deferred maintenance, including various pumps and motors that must be replaced and sludge in basins that has accumulated to levels that are “not acceptable,” Craig said.
Additionally, the system has faced staffing issues that are further complicating matters, officials said.
There’s also the issue of flooding. Intake water from the reservoir was impacted by recent heavy rainfall, creating a chemical imbalance on the conventional treatment side of the plant, Craig said Wednesday. This affected particulate removal, causing that side of the plant to be temporarily shut down and resulting in a loss of water distribution pressure.
The recent complications only added to longstanding issues in Jackson’s water system.
In February 2021, a severe winter storm hit, freezing and bursting pipes and leaving many residents without water for a month.
That came after the Jackson water system in early 2020 failed an Environmental Protection Agency inspection, which found the drinking water had the potential to be host to harmful bacteria or parasites.
In July 2021, the EPA and the city entered into an agreement to address “long-term challenges and make needed improvements to the drinking water system.” The EPA also recently announced $74.9 million in federal water and sewer infrastructure funds for Mississippi.
Advocates have previously pointed to systemic and environmental racism as among the causes of Jackson’s ongoing water issues and lack of resources to address them. About 82.5% of Jackson’s population identifies as Black or African American, according to census data, while the state’s legislature is majority White.
Asked Wednesday about claims that the deterioration of the water infrastructure in Jackson is a result of environmental racism, Reeves said the state does not run the water systems.
“In the state of Mississippi, we have a large number of municipalities that run their own water system. We have a large number of rural water associations that run their own water system. Prior to Monday of this week, the state of Mississippi runs exactly zero water systems,” he said.