Jackson’s water system: How did we get here? And how does it get fixed?

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The 1990s saw a dramatic change in Jackson’s racial makeup. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly 35,000 white residents fled the city from 1990 to 2000. The white population dropped dramatically while the Black population continued to rise.

White residents took their tax dollars to the surrounding bedroom communities. Between 2000 and 2020 the populations of Madison and Rankin counties grew by 35,000 and 42,000, respectively. 

In a state where the economy was built on a history of racial struggles, what was left in Jackson was a high concentration of low-wage jobs, renters, and impoverished families. This caused revenue to take a hit, as many families were simply unable to afford any pronounced increase in services. According to Brookings Metro Monitor, the Jackson metro area has only increased jobs by 6.6% between 2009 and 2019. Over that same period, median wages in Jackson declined by 7.6%.

And as wages declined, ironically, so did the quality of the city’s water and sewer systems.

Before the collapse of Jackson’s water system earlier this year, boil water notices and huge potholes were commonplace. Most of the pipes that run beneath Jackson date back to the 1950’s. This denotes a huge problem that wouldn’t be fixed by any one administration. City officials said 90% of its roads are in poor shape and the responsibility to fix them falls on them. Any revenue currently comes from a 1% sales tax approved in 2014 and the general budget. Mayor Chokwe Lumumba has said he doesn’t want to raise the 1% sales tax to meet that shortfall. To date, Jackson has spent nearly $16 million on roads. The council had previously approved expenditures in 2002 ($500,000) and 2009 ($1 million).

Water related expenses in Jackson are directly connected to revenue. Jackson has been unable to make long term investments in infrastructure and the emergency fixes have led to more expensive repairs over time. Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure plan includes $48 billion in new funds for water-related repairs. As detailed by the U.S. Water Alliance, there is $11.7 billion allocated to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund over five years, $11.7 billion allocated to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund over five years, and $15 billion allocated to addressing lead service lines over five years that will be distributed via the Drinking Water Fund. There’s also an additional $10 billion that focuses on emerging contaminants.

 “The City of Jackson works around the clock to provide top-quality water to every tap,” the City of Jackson’s 2020 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report said.

Every year, the Jackson Drinking Water Consumer Confidence Report offers this reassurance to the approximately 180,000 users of the water system that serves Jackson, nearby Byram, and the Nissan Plant just north of the city in Canton.

Problems keep recurring, though, with shutdowns, “boil-water” or “don’t-use” alerts being issued at unwelcome times throughout the year.

Jackson gets its water through two water processing plants and six wells served by the Sparta Aquifer. The O. B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant based in Ridgeland is the main facility, and the J. H. Fewell plant located near I-55 and Woodrow Wilson is much older and was expected to be closed at some point. The O.B. Curtis plant draws its source water from the Ross Barnett Reservoir. The J. H. Fewell plant gets its water from the Pearl River. The Sparta Aquifer, the source of Jackson’s well water, is a vast underground source that serves – besides Mississippi – Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama. 

When the J. H. Fewell plant was opened in 1908, Jackson’s population was less than 8,000. It began to grow exponentially as the century advanced. In 1940, the city population was 62,500. It reached a peak of 202,895 in 1980. The new numbers necessitated a better water system. The O. B. Curtis plant was built in the late 1980s to handle this increased demand. It began as a conventional system but went on to also install a modern membrane filtration system in 2006. 

Each of the plants can produce the 50 million gallons of water a day that would satisfy Jackson’s needs, although the O. B. Curtis plant is the real workhorse of the system and may eventually become the sole operating plant. 

Jackson’s water system has taken some weird, almost paradoxical, hits in just this year alone. The very unusual freezing weather in February and March brought the O. B. Curtis plant to a halt, but the much older J. H. Fewell plant was able to maintain its operations during the two storms. Those storms caused over 80 water main breaks. It was revealed that in the Spring of 2020, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Mississippi State Department of Health cited the city for compliance issues at the O.B. Curtis water treatment plant. Again, in late April, O. B. Curtis experienced an electrical fire, causing another shutdown and a boil-water alert.

A long-term problem

Charles Williams, Jackson’s chief engineer, said the city’s water problem is a long-term one that will require more than a short-term fix.

“I look at the age of the system itself,” he said. “Jackson is about to be 200 years old.”

The many miles of cast iron pipes that were once the mainstay of the water system are at the heart of the problem, he said.

“In the 1950s to the 1970s, you probably didn’t have much of an issue, because most of the lines were in pretty good shape,” he said. “But now that we are going into the 2020s, most of that pipe is falling apart.”

“Cast iron has met its life expectancy,” Williams said. “We’re looking at new material that has come out — ductile iron. It can handle those kinds of seasonal changes and those two differentials in pressure. But you have to have a program in place to replace the old cast iron pipes in order to achieve that.”

Williams looks beyond the current problems and sees a future where all the right conditions will be in place to make Jackson’s water system one worthy of praise. Currently, he said they are still trying to determine exactly how many miles of road needs to be fixed and what the cost will be. 

“If O.B. Curtis is fully equipped and has both the conventional and membrane side fully functional, we will be good,” he said. “Pressure will be sustainable. And the mechanical equipment needs to be upgraded at the plant to make sure that it is efficient. We’re working on that. But until we get to that point, we are going to still have these minor hiccups to take on.”

Water process

While the two water treatment plants are the most important parts of the water delivery system for Jackson, a number of other functions are essential to the process. 

The water drawn from the Barnett Reservoir and the Pearl River goes through a six-step process before. This includes bar screening, grit removal, primary and secondary clarification, aeration, and chlorination.

Jackson’s finished water is sent to 12 water storage tanks placed at strategic points across the city, with one of the twelve tanks serving Byram. The Jackson Maddox Well system consists of six wells serving mostly South Jackson and the city of Byram. Byram is supplied by both the O.B. Curtis water plant (30%) and by the well system (70%), Williams said.  

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 gives the state control over its own drinking water, so long as the standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are followed. The EPA requires tests for 90 contaminants in all public water systems. In Mississippi, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Mississippi Department of Health and local governments enforce the EPA standards as well as their own rules adopted at the state or local level. 


The wastewater treatment process is equally important as the fresh water supply system, although the two systems are kept at safe distances. The city of Jackson has contracted out its wastewater processing to Veolia, an international company specializing in waste management services.

The city has three wastewater treatment facilities: Savanna Street, Presidential Hills, and Trahon Creek. The wastewater system consists of 1,500 miles of sewer lines and 98 lift stations. Because of a high number of sewer overflows and untreated sewage discharges at the Savanna Street plant, Jackson was compelled to enter into a consent decree in November 2012 with MDEQ and EPA. The Savanna Street violations included excessive flow, collapsed pipes, grease and fat buildup and blockages from roots and solids.

The wastewater process is strictly regulated by EPA under the authority of the Clean Water Act. No individual is allowed to dump wastewater, treated or untreated, into federal waters without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

Because of its many problems, Jackson is frequently held up to ridicule but Mayor Lumumba, however, would rather focus on the solutions to the city’s problems than respond to the taunts. 

“We will never solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it,” he said in a nationally televised interview during the February ice storm. “It is that type of thinking that created the problem in the first place.”

Jackson doesn’t stand alone in this time of troubled waters. There are many other cities across the nation where ordinary citizens are plagued by recurring problems that pose a threat to public health and safety. California, for example, has been averaging nearly 10,000 wildfires annually in recent years, the National Interagency Fire Center reports. And Texas has had its annual round of hurricanes and devastating floods over the last 10 years, with Houston suffering the worst blows. And more is on the way.

All politics are local

In 1997, Jackson elected its first Black mayor, Harvey Johnson, Jr. Previously, Black candidates had come up short in mayoral elections for years. Johnson ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1993, placing third in the Democratic primary behind two white candidates, Kane Ditto and Dale Danks. In his 2001 reelection bid, Johnson would defeat Kane Ditto in the Democratic primary. He would defeat Republican C. Daryl Neely in the general election, marking the first time that two Black men ran against each other for mayor. Johnson’s victory ushered in a new era of Black leadership in the city.

Mississippi Sen. John Horhn, who has been in the state legislature 29 years, said he has seen the dynamics in the city change. For him, race has been the major factor. He said when Jackson’s form of government switched from commissioners to councilpersons in the mid-1980s, there was an influx of Black candidates. When several of those candidates won seats, a white exodus happened.

In 1985, Jackson boasted about a quarter of a million people in the city limits. Currently, there are about 150,000 people in the city. Horhn said what happened was a loss of financial backing, business and moral support. The split wasn’t an amicable one.

“There was venom attached to it. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Horhn said. “They complained that Black folks were going to get elected and the quality of life was going to go down. Well, that’s what happened.

“But it wasn’t because Black folks were elected, it was because you abandoned this city.”

Horhn said there is a love-to-hate-Jackson mentality in the legislature. He said some of it is steeped in the longstanding rural vs. urban conflict while some is jealousy of Jackson being the capital. Then, there’s race. Unfortunately, he said, it drives a lot of behavior, attitude, and decision making that’s aided the steady decline of Jackson’s streets and water.

Currently, the legislature has $1.8 billion allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act. There’s $1 billion unbudgeted in state coffers and another $500 million in the state’s rainy-day fund. Horhn said the state is more flush with cash than it has ever been. But communication with the city hasn’t been as effective as it needs to be.

“There’s a lot you can get done when you don’t care who gets the credit,” he said.

Mississippi State Rep. Chris Bell said it’s now about insisting that the city of Jackson gets its fair share of the monies coming into the state. He said in the past, he’s seen dollars allocated for the entire state go to only a few counties. When Mississippi received $2 billion from the BP settlement in 2010, Bell said those monies were spent almost entirely on the coastal counties. Jackson received $50,000. That’s a formula, he said, that won’t work for the capital city.

“We have a large group of individuals at the capital that still have a sense of ‘Jackson doesn’t need anything’ and we’re fighting back against those individuals,” he said. “They’ve got to understand Jackson is the trunk and they are the branches. If the trunk dies, the branches die. They need to deliver that message to the governor and lieutenant governor.

Ultimately, the question may no longer be whether or not the money is available to fix Jackson’s long-standing infrastructure problems. It’s whether or not those that hold the purse strings will agree to give Jackson what it needs to fix it.

This report 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, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University, Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, and Mississippi Today.

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Jackson’s water system: How did we get here? And how does it get fixed?

By Earnest McBride
January 10, 2022