BROKEN BY DESIGN: A special report on Jackson’s water system

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Moral Monday protest at the MS State Capitol (Photo by Uri Thier)

By Hadas Thier

Jackson Advocate Guest Writer

Hadas Thier is the author of A People’s Guide to Capitalism: An Introduction to Marxist Economics.

Every March, cardinals arrive in Kali Akuno’s front yard in Jackson, Miss., to build nests in his trees. But in spring 2017, something odd happened: The chicks hatched on cue, but then died. “They didn’t fall out of the nest,” Akuno says. “They starved.”

Evolution has synced up life cycles such that “the birds nest when they know there’s going to be an abundance of insects to catch and feed to their chicks,” Akuno explains. But that spring, there were no bugs. About two weeks later, the insects emerged in swarms from their winter freeze with few natural predators to thin their numbers. “They’re just not on cycle anymore,” Akuno says.

In Jackson, climate change has disrupted more than the lives of birds. Increased flooding has overwhelmed the water treatment plants, and cold weather has damaged the city’s disinfecting equipment and burst its aging pipes. “Over the last five years,” Akuno says, “almost each winter we’ve been getting record-breaking freezes. Our system is just not built for that. Almost nothing in Mississippi is built for that. And it’s wreaking havoc on the systems down here in Jackson.”

The water infrastructure of Jackson—a city that is 83 percent Black—has been underfunded and crumbling for decades. Now the intensifying impacts of a changing climate are delivering a final blow. Whether in New Orleans in 2005, Flint, Mich., in 2014, or Jackson today, Black Americans are disproportionately affected by these system failures. Abre’ Conner, the NAACP’s director of environmental and climate justice, testified during a congressional hearing on water infrastructure in September: “The effect of climate change on Black people has finally come into national focus, because Black people experience the most horrific impacts from historic disinvestment from communities.”

The disproportionate effects of climate change and national disinvestment highlight an important point: While the water infrastructure may be deteriorating in cities across the country, not all cities fare the same. Jackson suffers more because it has been left to the mercy of conservative leadership in the state of Mississippi. 

“Boil-water notice after boil-water notice after boil-water notice,” she says. “After a while you think, ‘I probably shouldn’t ever drink this water.’ There is a level of normalcy for oppression here, so we limp on.” – Maati Primm

The Last Straw

When a record-setting rainfall hit Jackson in August of last year, the Pearl River spilled into the Ross Barnett Reservoir. The river and the reservoir are the city’s main water sources, and they feed into its two water treatment plants. The overflow swamped the equipment at the O.B. Curtis plant, and its pumps failed. As a result, the system could not maintain the water pressure flowing into water tanks and households. For a week, more than 150,000 residents were left without water to drink, wash dishes, flush toilets, or cook or shower with. Schools, stores, and restaurants closed.

OB Curtis Water Treatment Plant (Advocate photo by Joshua Martin)

The breakdown of the water system was not a surprise. The O.B. Curtis plant was already operating on backup pumps, and its disinfecting equipment was degraded after years of neglect. In the weeks before the August rains, the city had been under a boil-water notice due to high levels of turbidity—a measure of the number of particles found in the water. These particles are not necessarily unsafe themselves, but they provide shelter for microbes and reduce the effectiveness of disinfectants. Left unaddressed, high turbidity can lead to outbreaks of waterborne diseases. When water was restored on September 5, the boil notice was still in effect, and it would continue for another 10 days. 

For Jacksonians, this breakdown brought a feeling of déjà vu. Rewind just a year and a half: A cold snap in 2021 incapacitated the city’s water system, leaving tens of thousands of residents without running water for several weeks. Critical equipment in the O.B. Curtis plant froze, and more than 100 water mains broke. Jackson’s outdated water distribution system is particularly fragile because it includes pipes that are smaller than the industry standard and some that are made of concrete or cast iron, which easily crack. Charles Williams, the director of the Public Works Department at the time, presciently told Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger in 2021: “We are by no means out of the woods yet. This particular event really shows how vulnerable the system is. But it could be another scenario next time.”

The system has been in crisis mode for years. Storms in 2010, 2014, and 2018 led to water outages. And again, at the close of 2022, a winter freeze beginning on Christmas Eve plunged the city into another water emergency. Faucets ran dry, boil-water notices were issued, and schools closed yet again.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the city has issued approximately 300 boil-water notices over the past two years and suffered more than 7,300 water line breaks in the past four. Numerous consent decrees, violation notices, and orders from the agency dot the city’s public record. Among them is a 2015 EPA finding of lead in the city’s water samples—in some places almost double the allowable levels. Since that year, contamination levels have gone down. But two-thirds of water samples still contain lead. No amount of lead is safe for children, according to the CDC. 

Inside the Curtis treatment facility, much of the equipment that monitors and treats the water has long been in disrepair. A 2020 EPA investigation, for instance, found that pH meters, turbidimeters, and other equipment hadn’t been repaired or calibrated in about three years—since the last time its instrument technician position was filled. In fact, staffing shortages at the city’s water plants meant that employees were working hundreds of hours of overtime before the recent crisis. 

The dysfunctional system leaves Jackson’s water supply vulnerable to E. coli and other contaminants. Broken pipes decrease water pressure and flow, which allows contaminants to enter through the cracks. Water that isn’t properly treated also becomes corrosive, causing lead from old pipes to leach into the supply. And boiling water—a near constant exercise in Jackson—increases lead concentration. According to the EPA’s 2020 investigation, the conditions of Jackson’s water system are an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to the health of its residents.

Tracy Miller, a mother of three, described what Jackson’s water woes have meant for families: “I have a 16-year-old son, a 13-year-old son, and an 8-year-old daughter. For years, when we’ve made their bottles, their lunch, breakfast, we’ve turned on the faucet for water. How much lead have I put in my children within those years? Each one of my children has eczema. Have I been bathing my children in lead-based water? Have I been putting bacteria in my children from this water?”

Makeeba Parker, who lives in West Jackson, has four children. She’s had to teach them to brush their teeth with bottled water. When she cooks, she cleans her meat with bottled water too. “Girl, I’ve been living here for 15 years,” she says. “I have heard boil-water notices for the 15 years I’ve been here. A lot of people adapted to buying bottled water and using it every day, whether the boil-water notice is on or not. We know the danger.”

To make matters worse, the water billing system in Jackson has been defective for years. In 2010, the city agreed to pay Siemens Industry $90 million to fix everything from pipes to meters. The company had promised to save the city at least $120 million but ultimately left its billing system in shambles. These days, some Jacksonians don’t get water bills at all, while others get bills that are extraordinarily high. Parker recently received a bill for almost $8,000. She has tried repeatedly to contact the city’s water department about the overcharge, as well as a months-long water main leak in her yard. “You can’t even get them on the phone,” she says. 

Maati Primm owns a small bookstore that’s been in her family for 83 years. Marshall’s Bookstore has been on Farish Street since the days of Jim Crow, when the district was an economic and cultural sanctuary for Jackson’s Black community. “Boil-water notice after boil-water notice after boil-water notice,” she says. “After a while you think, ‘I probably shouldn’t ever drink this water.’ There is a level of normalcy for oppression here, so we limp on.”

“The first thing you have to understand,” says Pieter Teeuwissen, Jackson’s city attorney from 2009 to 2013, “is that the state of Mississippi hates its capital city.”

The State Hates Its Capital

When I went to pay the meter for a parking spot in downtown Jackson in September, a woman walked by and said, “Oh, those don’t work.” I was clearly from out of town.

The state of disrepair is so much a part of daily life that residents trade memes about broken roads, and the local comedian Rita Brent wrote a popular song, “Can You Rock Me Like a Pothole?,” about trying to find a man who will “wax her axle” as much as the uneven streets of Jackson.

Jackson’s roads share at least one foe with the city’s water distribution system: the underground geology. The Yazoo clay under Jackson’s topsoil expands and contracts with the temperature, putting pressure on roads and pipes. Yet beyond this bit of geological misfortune, none of the other infrastructure problems are the result of bad luck. The real problem, I was told over and over again, is state politics. “The first thing you have to understand,” says Pieter Teeuwissen, Jackson’s city attorney from 2009 to 2013, “is that the state of Mississippi hates its capital city.”

 Farish St. circa 2023 (Photo by Uri Thier)

As Teeuwissen explains, this partly has to do with a longstanding rural-versus-urban divide. The state’s largest city has produced only two governors in Mississippi’s history. State Senator John Horhn similarly cites “a historical love-hate relationship between the legislature and the capital city since its inception.”

Horhn tells me, “We initially had a rural planter elite that ran the state, because they had the money and plantations, and then that leadership migrated to rural northeastern Mississippi. Now most of our legislative leadership come from small towns.”

But the unspoken tensions that only simmered in the past boiled over into outright hostility and sabotage once Mississippi’s capital turned Black—first in its demographics, and then in its political leadership. When the federal government forced Mississippi to desegregate its schools in 1970 (a full 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education), it triggered a “particularly hurried” white flight, in Akuno’s words, in which thousands of white families moved out of the city. Between 1990 and 2020, the city lost roughly 40,000 residents, and its population shifted to majority Black.

This demographic change, Horhn says, “prompted migration, a deliberate disinvestment by the business community of the capital city, and a disinvestment by the legislature that keeps peeling off more resources and agencies and programs to locate them outside of the capital city.”

Jackson elected its first Black city council member in 1985 and its first Black mayor, Harvey Johnson, in 1997. Since Johnson, all of the city’s mayors have been Black. Today, if you walk up the steps inside Jackson’s City Hall, you’ll see that the wall to the right has framed photos of all the city’s white mayors. The framed photos to the left are all the city’s more recent Black mayors. Nearly all levels of local governance in Jackson are now filled by Black people—from the county clerk to the judges to the tax collector to most of the city council. But even though Mississippi has the highest percentage of Black residents of any state, not a single statewide office has been held by a Black person since Reconstruction ended over 130 years ago.

The Blacker the city’s leadership, the sharper the narrative spun by Mississippi’s white, conservative state government. State-level leaders have said publicly that the people of Jackson cannot govern themselves. Mississippi Republican Governor Tate Reeves has disparaged the city and the “absolute and total incompetence” of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and alleged that the city has squandered the funding it received. Reeves repeatedly excluded Lumumba from press conferences about the city’s water crisis, and his office claimed that Lumumba’s administration was not a source of “honest information.” 

According to Frank Figgers, a third-generation Jacksonian and a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, this recalls the late 19th century, when white leaders of Mississippi claimed that Reconstruction failed because Black people were “inept, irresponsible, and incapable of governing.” The reality, of course, is that the forces of white supremacy violently overthrew Black political gains through intimidation, murder, voter suppression, and driving formerly enslaved people from their homes.

“The state has been keenly aware of what’s been happening in Jackson for a long period of time…” – Abre’ Conner, NAACP’s director of environmental and climate justice

Reeves and the state legislature have repeatedly turned down the city’s requests for aid, including a $47 million emergency funding request in March 2021, just days after the winter freeze incapacitated Jackson’s water system. “The state has been keenly aware of what’s been happening in Jackson for a long period of time,” says Conner, the NAACP environmental justice director. “And as Jackson became more and more Black, it’s faced more and more obstacles in getting the resources that it needs. The state has intentionally weaponized funds against the communities who need them the most.” A case in point: Mayor Lumumba says the lieutenant governor asked him to “give me my airport” in exchange for infrastructure funding. The city has been fighting the state’s attempt to wrest control of Jackson’s airport since 2016.

Now Republicans have introduced a bill in the Mississippi legislature that aims to take ownership of the water system from the city and give it to the state. It will accomplish this through a nine-member board, four of whom would be appointed by the city in consultation with surrounding suburbs and confirmed by the state Senate. The bill prompted Lumumba to call out the state’s “plantation politics.” “It is a colonial power taking over our city,” he said at a press conference in January. “Every time there is a mention of Jackson, there is this parental force that believes they should be the overseer of the city.” 

Senator Horhn, who is on the state legislature’s budget committee, places some of the blame on local leadership for “kicking the can down the road,” but he adds that “the state should do more, especially at a time when we have $4 billion in non-obligated resources in our coffers.” Horhn continues, “When we discussed our critical needs, I spoke about the critical needs of our capital city and offered a motion to dedicate at least $100 million towards those needs. The motion died for lack of a second.”

Governor Reeves has justified funding rebukes with statements like, “It’s important that the City of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money.” Meanwhile, the lieutenant governor, Delbert Hosemann, asked a reporter with the Mississippi Free Press, “You remember during Kane Ditto’s administration? He did repair work on water and sewer. So what happened since then?” (Ditto was Jackson’s last white mayor.)

Jackson’s Black mayors inherited a system in need of an overhaul. Before Harvey Johnson became mayor in 1997, he was an urban planner and the founder of a nonprofit that provided technical assistance on water infrastructure. Once in office, he spent nearly $150 million of mostly city funds to upgrade the system. What Johnson and successive administrations lacked was not knowledge or political will but the funds to do what was needed.

Jackson, like many other cities, relies on residents’ water bills to maintain basic operations. But because of the city’s meter problems, this revenue is unreliable. Cities fund larger upgrades and improvement projects by issuing municipal bonds. But Jackson’s bond rating was downgraded to junk status in 2018 because of the poverty levels in the city and its broken billing system. Cities with junk bond ratings are hard-pressed to issue bonds and can do so only by paying much higher interest rates.

In 2020, Mayor Lumumba put forward the Jackson Water Bill, which would have provided relief to residents with onerous or faulty bills and repair the city’s bond status by writing off some of its water bill debts. The bill unanimously passed in the legislature but was vetoed by Reeves. The following year, the city proposed a 1 percent sales tax. Had it been implemented, the tax could have generated an estimated $14 million per year and been used to back larger bond issuances. But the bill died in the state legislature without committee consideration.

Sen. Horhn at water giveaway on Sept. 2, 2022  (Advocate photo by Joshua Martin)

Federal assistance for water infrastructure goes through the Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (DWSRF), a pot of money managed by the states. In Jackson’s case, this sets up an obstructionist middleman between the city and those federal funds. A recent NAACP civil rights complaint against Mississippi for mishandling the Jackson water crisis points out that the state has granted DWSRF funds to Jackson only three times since the program began 25 years ago. “For years, the state of Mississippi [has] discriminated on the basis of race against the city of Jackson, and its majority-Black population, by diverting federal funds…in favor of funding smaller, majority-white communities with less acute needs,” the NAACP wrote.

Local organizers have long complained about the state’s refusals to fund Jackson’s infrastructure. Akuno, who worked for the late mayor Chokwe Lumumba (the current mayor’s father), explains, “One of the lies that Tate Reeves is telling right now is that the city was trying to cover things up, that the system was totally mismanaged and that it was understaffed.

“Yes, it was understaffed,” he continues. “We’ve known that. We knew what was going to break. There were detailed reports that came from Public Works that said: ‘This is broke, this is broke, this is broke. If this doesn’t happen, this is going to break within this time. This is corroding. We don’t have capacity here.’ That was in 2014, almost a decade ago. And we made request after request. This blockage of resources has been there for the longest period of time.”

Now federal legislation—the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)—is providing desperately needed funds to shore up the nation’s infrastructure. But whether those funds will get to Jackson remains to be determined. Mississippi received $1.8 billion from ARPA, and the state has allocated only $180 million of that to water systems. Those funds have been slow to get out the door, and for Jackson, they come with strings: Mississippi’s legislature imposed extra oversight on the ARPA funds for Jackson—and for no other jurisdiction. Any money awarded to the city has to be kept in a fund controlled by the state treasury, overseen by both the Department of Finance and Administration and the Department of Environmental Quality.

“Our administration has very little more control over the economic realities of our society than we did before we got in these positions…” – Chokwe Lumumba

Black Power Without Economic Power

“The story of race relations in our country is like what Newton said: For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction,” says Patrice Willoughby, the NAACP’s vice president of policy and legislative affairs. “As you see the ascendance of Black political power, there is pushback. It used to be very overt in the Jim Crow era. Now it’s much more insidious, using the levers of government to create structural disadvantage.”

Many Jacksonians see the current state of disinvestment as an outgrowth of white supremacy. As Primm, the bookseller, explains, “You have this mass exodus of whites leaving Jackson, first leaving the school system. But it’s one thing to leave a school system—it’s another thing to vandalize that system before you leave, so that what’s left are no books and broken equipment, desks, and chairs. The same thing with the condition of the streets, and the condition of the water. And it’s purposeful, right?” she adds. “Yeah, it’s a punishment for civil rights legislation enacted in Mississippi.”

Indeed, Mississippi was the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, giving rise to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Freedom Summer, and countless other liberation struggles. In the 1970s, Black nationalists, the future mayor Chokwe Lumumba among them, founded the separatist organization Republic of New Afrika in Jackson.

Chokwe Lumumba

The elder Lumumba recognized that without economic power, access to political power is insufficient to create transformative change. “Our administration has very little more control over the economic realities of our society than we did before we got in these positions,” he said in an interview with Jacobin shortly before his death in 2014. “We have some technical influence,” he continued, “but not real control.” Now his son is the mayor, but constrained by the city’s shrinking population, declining tax base, and decaying infrastructure, he’s been in the position, in Akuno’s words, “of putting his finger in the dam.”

Rukia Lumumba, the mayor’s daughter and the director of the People’s Advocacy Institute, puts it this way: “As soon as we take over a city—whether you’re in Detroit or Newark or Jackson—you see it happen over and over again: a divestment of economic resources from Black, brown, and -BIPOC communities. And without those resources, it makes it a lot harder to achieve our gains.”

Moral Monday protest at the MS State Capitol; Rukia Lumumba speaking at protest
(Photos by Uri Thier)

An Inflection Point

The United States is one of the few developed countries that doesn’t treat its water system as a national utility. Instead, local bonds, occasionally supplemented by federal and state funds, finance a patchwork of 148,000 public water systems in the country (including 1,170 in Mississippi).

Federal regulation and funding for water systems peaked in the 1970s, allowing cities to invest in improvements to comply with new water quality standards. But that funding was cut dramatically in the 1980s, and federal infrastructure grants to states were phased out, replaced by a trickle of loans. By 2017, the federal government’s share of total water infrastructure spending had fallen to less than 4 percent—its lowest point in 50 years and down from a peak of 30 percent in 1977. And the remaining federal funds are often set up in a way that disadvantages low-income communities.

According to records requested from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied Jackson a grant to repair equipment at its water plant after the 2021 winter storm. A MEMA representative explained that the city didn’t receive the money because it had “deferred maintenance”—in other words, the city could not prove that the equipment had been properly maintained and therefore that the storm caused the damage. But in Jackson’s case, both were true: The winter storm damaged equipment that was already in disrepair.

Even when cities can access bonds and revolving funds, it leaves them on the hook. Detroit, for example, has been saddled with $5.7 billion in bond debt for its water upgrades, while Birmingham, Ala., has accumulated $3.3 billion in debt. Meanwhile, federal funds flow through state coffers, leaving cities like Jackson at the mercy of state politics. As Jackson organizer Makani Themba tells me, state control over federal funding harks back to a “states’ rights ideology rooted in the history of white power. So states get the money, and they make decisions about where the money goes.” And in Mississippi, little of it goes to Black cities.

But while localities struggle to fund their systems, they are responsible for meeting water safety regulations. Over the past several years, Jackson has been slapped with repeated orders and noncompliance violations by the EPA and now the Department of Justice. “With Safe Drinking Water Act violations and other federal statutes, it’s often Black cities who are more likely to have violations, even though the people who hold the ability to give them money for water infrastructure issues are at the state level. And the federal government has played a role in that counterintuitive narrative of who is to blame,” the NAACP’s Conner says. “It’s frankly racist, because the communities that are most likely to be impacted are left to have to pick up the pieces of a system that isn’t set up in their favor.”

A Happy Ending?

Jackson’s water system may still arrive at a happy ending. Public outcry inside and outside of Jackson has shone a desperately needed spotlight on the city’s woes.  Alongside the NAACP’s civil rights complaint against the state, a congressional investigation was started by Mississippi Representative Bennie Thompson and (now former) New York Representative Carolyn Maloney into whether the state has been starving the city of resources. The federal government has also stepped in to help manage the immediate crisis. In November, the EPA brokered an agreement between itself, the Justice Department, the city, and the state. The deal installs an interim third-party manager, Ted Henifin, to operate and manage the city’s water system.

The federal government is giving Henifin $600 million through the latest omnibus appropriations bill and wide latitude to operate without having to go through the Mississippi Capitol—though Republican leaders in the state have responded by introducing legislation that attempts to undermine Henifin’s authority. Days after the Mississippi Senate introduced a bill to take over Jackson’s water system, it passed another bill—clearly targeting Jackson—that mandates how cities calculate their water bills. If that legislation becomes law, it will stonewall Henifin’s ability to apply workarounds to Jackson’s broken metering system. 

(Photo by Uri Thier)

Under the federal agreement, the operation and management of the water system will continue to be funded by the city. But money for capital improvement (as well as for Henifin’s salary and those of other consultants) will come from the EPA through the appropriations bill, in addition to money allocated from ARPA and the infrastructure bill. According to Conner, the order is “a step in the right direction,” because funding will be “going directly to the city and bypassing the state, who we’ve been saying all along has been extremely obstructionist.”

Nevertheless, Henifin’s wide latitude includes the ability to raise water rates in Jackson should he deem it necessary without requiring the city’s approval. And he will operate outside of any state or city agency and therefore will not be subject to Freedom of Information Act record requests. The order does, at least, prohibit him from selling any city assets to a private company—though it allows him to contract out maintenance operations. The vision for what comes after the temporary agreement—and how temporary it really is—remains murky. Henifin’s position has no specific end date. When asked who will decide when and whether the city will be able to take over management again, Henifin replied, “I don’t really know that answer, if that’s the EPA or the judge. That’s down the road.” 

Residents and organizers in Jackson have come together again and again to support each other through water crises. Dozens of organizations in the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition have distributed millions of bottles of water and other goods and have organized twice-monthly protests at the governor’s mansion. Residents have, in Themba’s words, “showed up for each other.” She adds that calling them “heroic would be an understatement.”

The Rev. William Barber II, who cochairs the Poor People’s Campaign and travels regularly from North Carolina to Jackson to help lead rallies at the governor’s mansion, tells me that residents there are fed up. But their efforts to save the city from state neglect could inspire the growing number of communities in similar fights. “The people in Jackson have come to a place where Fannie Lou Hamer was at when she said, ‘I’m just sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ They’re sick and tired of being forced to drink and bathe and wash in nasty water,” Barber says. “But this is not an isolated battle. In some ways, Jackson may become a launching pad for more movements across the country, wherever this problem exists.” 

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center and produced in partnership with the Nation.

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BROKEN BY DESIGN: A special report on Jackson’s water system

By Jackson Advocate News Service
February 22, 2023