As a water shortage ballooned into a crisis in Jackson, Miss., the leak grew bigger and bigger, gouging out a swimming pool-size crater in the earth.
On an abandoned golf course, overgrown with shrubs and saw grass, you can hear the rushing water from 100 yards away.
Near Hole 4, past the little bridge and crumbling cart paths, what looks to be a waterfall comes into view, pouring down through the brush and into the creek below. Except the torrent of water gushing up through the mud isn’t from a spring-fed stream or a bubbling brook.
It is spewing from a broken city water line.
No one knows for sure when the leak reached its current size. But newly appointed water officials say the city discovered the broken mainline pipe in 2016 and left it to gush, even as the water gouged out a swimming pool-size crater in the earth and city residents were forced to endure one drinking water crisis after another.
Jackson’s water system has been flirting with collapse for decades thanks to a combination of mismanagement, crumbling infrastructure and a series of ill-fated decisions that cost the utility money that it did not have. In 2022, the Justice Department reached an agreement with the city requiring it to bring in an outside manager to run the water department.
Residents of the city have been forced to endure chronic boil water notices that traverse the city like rolling blackouts. Many have learned to hoard bottled water against the next round of boil notices. Intermittent bouts of low water pressure can make faucets unusable for thousands of people at a time.
“The size of the leak is probably not uncommon,” said Jordan Hillman, chief operating officer of JXN Water, the management company formed last year to lead Jackson’s effort to stabilize its water service. “The time it took to respond to it is very uncommon. Most places would see this as an immediate threat because that’s a ticking time bomb. As it eats the ground out away from it, you’re eventually going to have a catastrophic failure.”
It is unclear why the city and water department did not repair the leak sooner. Melissa Faith Payne, a city spokesperson, did not immediately respond to questions on Wednesday regarding the broken line. Tony Yarber, the former mayor of Jackson, and Kishia Powell, the former public works director — both in leadership positions in 2016 — could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The size of the Colonial Country Club leak and the fact that it went unaddressed for so long hints at the monumental task that city and state leaders face as they work to find a lasting solution. Under the direction of a newly appointed water czar, Ted Henifin, a two-person team has scoured the city searching for leaks or closed water valves, which also can affect water pressure.Often, they have turned the valves back on themselves. Leaks generally require more time and resources to address. One of the leaks is spewing water 30 feet in the air like a geyser and losing the city as much as one million gallons a day, Ms. Hillman said.
The broken pipe under the golf course is one of two main lines that move water from the OB Curtis Water Plant to smaller transmission lines that eventually connect to thousands of customers across the city. The 48-inch pipe is critical to south Jackson, a part of the city that has suffered the most from outages and boil water notices.
Luke Guarisco, who owns the land where the golf course once operated, said he reported the leak several years ago when he noticed a broken pipe pushing water into the creek along the back of his property line. Guarisco said he lived out of state and wasn’t aware of the giant hole that has since been created by the leak.
Leaks are common in water systems. However, in Jackson, the city’s problems with leaks are so extensive, its systems so antiquated, its chronic staffing problems so overwhelming, that many leaks, seemingly of any size, have gone undetected or unaddressed.
One of the water plants that serves Jackson was built in 1914, the other in the late 1980s. Water lines under the city can be more than 100 years old, and no one knows when or where a piece of pipe or equipment will fail. A combination of Jackson’s aging infrastructure and recent freezes may have exacerbated the current leaks.
The system faced near-total shutdown in March 2021 when residents went weeks without water. In August 2022, another crisis unfolded at OB Curtis, and Mississippi declared a state of emergency for the capital city as water was, once again, deemed unsafe to drink.
Mr. Henifin, a retired manager for a wastewater company out of Virginia that serves 1.8 million people, who has spent 40 years in public service, was working with a national nonprofit on a “small, part-time basis” to address water equity in Jackson. In July, he was working from home in Virginia, one day a week. By November, he was living part time in Mississippi, appointed by the Justice Department to manage the federal takeover of the water system. He officially moved to the state in January.
In the months since, he has talked with state and local leaders about how to create a sustainable water system. But he is seeking solutions in a state where Black city leaders and white state leaders often spar over what is and is not in the best interest of Jackson.
Outside the country club on Tuesday afternoon, construction crews were preparing to begin repairs, which are expected to take a couple of weeks. Residents should see reduced water pressure for only a few hours and water should remain safe to drink, Ms. Hillman said.
Curious neighbors could see stacks of new pipe and hear the sound of trees being cut.
Oscar Mckenzie saw crews working on the leak and assumed they were there to fix another water issue. A water main broke several years ago, he said, and flooded the streets.
Like so many Jackson residents, Mr. Mckenzie doesn’t drink the water that comes out of the tap. He worries what it might do to his four children. When they shower, the water makes their backs itch, he said.
Several houses down, Emmetta Jones passes by the new barricades on her regular walk escorting her son to his school bus stop. Her water pressure is steady, she said, but brown water occasionally comes out of her tap.
Like her neighbor, she doesn’t drink the water. She hasn’t in years.
Sarah Fowler is reporting on the water crisis from Mississippi, where she was born and raised, as part of The New York Times’s Local Investigations Fellowship.