‘When will water crises end?’ South Jackson Town Hall wants to know

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Ward 6 Councilmember Aaron Banks and Jackson water administrator Ted Henifin lead Town Hall discussion at Glory Empowerment Center. (Advocate photos by Joshua Martin)

Ward 6 City Councilman Aaron Banks asked his constituent Ed Coles to stand at Monday evening’s Town Hall meeting at Glory Empowerment Center on Maddox Road.

“Mr. Coles and his wife live at the highest point of elevation on Forest Hill Road,” Banks said. “Before any of our water goes out, his goes out four or five days before. I know what’s about to happen in our area because of Mr. Coles.”  

For the past three years, South Jackson residents have been experiencing the worst of  the city’s water system failures and the most boil water notices, often suffering from complete loss of water while other parts of the city retain some vestige of water from the system. South Jackson sits at a higher elevation and is at the farthest distance from the water treatment plants located on the northeast and east side of the city and is usually cut off from the system under low pressure conditions.   

Banks said he felt the urgency to have a “transparent” look at the continuing failure of the city’s water system only a month after a solution that looked so promising and appeared to be just around the corner had been adopted. 

Ted Henifin, the court-approved administrator of the Jackson water system, said he was uncertain about the exact cause of the continuing low water pressure. The city’s 1,500 miles of pipe has long been represented as a tragedy just waiting to happen. 

“We don’t know anything about our distribution system,” said Henifin. “We don’t know where the valves are. We don’t know what position they’re in. We don’t have records of that. We haven’t been able to find any of that information. We don’t have any models.”

Through an agreement signed by the EPA, the Justice Department, the state, and the City of Jackson – and accepted by federal Judge Henry Wingate on November 29 – Henifin, a water system manager in Virginia for over 40 years, was signed on as the third-party administrator. His salary is paid by the federal government and will not draw from any funds coming to the City  of Jackson.

HARD FREEZE

Just as Jackson was getting on the right track to solving its water crisis in early December, one of the hardest freezes to hit the city in years caused another breakdown of the system. 

Due to the loss of system pressure, the City of Jackson issued a boil water advisory for all surface water connections on Christmas day.  

“I’m committed to make sure that this is the last Christmas that you ever have to worry about your water system,” Henifin said. “But it’s going to take a lot of things between here and there to make sure it stops.” 

Henifin has contracted with Jacobs, the nation’s largest water operations and management company, for the round-the-clock operations. 

Jacobs operates over 200 plants across the United States. Jacobs has made the commitment but was awaiting the city council’s final approval Tuesday. 

“We’re going to ramp up getting some of them down here before the contract starts over the next two days,” Henifin said Monday. “We were really thin on maintenance over the holidays because we didn’t think we needed to have more. But, that was a mistake. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll have a lot more people coming in. Jacobs is finding people within their organization, but, ultimately, they’d like to work with local folks.”

WATER LOSS

Jackson is using three times as much water as it should, Henifin said.

“If you use the numbers that EPA looks at for every other city for water consumption, Jackson is using about three times as much water as any other city in the United States. You should be using between 18 and 20 million gallons a day. That would serve your entire population. But we’re sending out 45 to 50 million gallons a day from the plant. It’s leaking. It’s going someplace. It’s going to a lot of places.”

He just doesn’t know where.

Jackson draws its surface water supply from the Reservoir and the Pearl River for processing at the O. B. Curtis and J. H. Fewell water treatment plants. The city also has a well system that serves mostly South Jackson and parts of the City of Byram.

“There are lots of ways, potentially, that we can make some quick fixes,” Henifin said. “We know the variety of options that could be done to help keep water pressure in South Jackson all the time. It may take us a few months to implement some of the solutions.

“We need to set up pressure zones within the city, which is not unusual. Most city systems have pressure zones that actually put pressure control valves in. And the cracks that’re in your pressure zone make it stop in your area, but it doesn’t drain out when something else happens in the system. So, if you establish smaller zones to your system, you might have some problems from time to time, but it doesn’t wipe out everyone. But in your case [South Jackson], it always wipes you out because there’s no separation between the higher elevation in South Jackson and the rest of the community. And so, you’re always going to be the ones to get hit when there’s a big line break, or when there’s a plant problem.”

Broken water lines, many of which are not visible or traceable, account for up to a 50 percent loss of the city’s water at any time, Henifin said.

SENSE OF JUSTICE

“Is there anything in place to help us with this financial strain that’s been put on us?” One questioner asked.

Banks said everybody there should be “writing our representatives and senators, because what you’re talking about is some kind of stimulus. And we’re getting ready to get into federal legislation now. I think the appetite is there now to tell Jackson’s story and say our people need a stimulus package because of what they had to spend during this water crisis.”

The City of Byram buys a part of its water supply directly from Jackson and faces the same discomforts when the system fails. 

Byram Ward 3 Councilman  Robert Amos asked the water operations administrator to open the lines of communications with Byram’s Public Works director.

“The area I represent is where the water outage is,” Amos said. “This [water system failure] is crippling our businesses and our residences. Hotels are being closed. Stay in communication with our public works. You’ve got to give these folks answers who are being crippled financially from a business standpoint and from a residential standpoint.” 

Jackson educator Brittany Morrow-Green said she has had to move to a hotel during the current water problem. 

“I’ve lived in the Brookwood area for 10 years,” she said. “But for the past ten days, we haven’t had any water at all. Not a trickle, not a drop.

“My biggest concern is the lack of transparency, and the lack of communication. We’re not being told what’s going on with the water. We’re not being told when it will come back on. We’re not being told anything. 

“My problem is that you have a whole community of individuals who have no idea of what’s going on. From day-to-day, we get up hoping we will have water and we don’t. We have elderly people who aren’t able to get water. 

“No one is coming into our community to give us water. Having one tanker miles and miles away does not help us.  Why aren’t there tankards or community organizations coming into our communities to provide us with water?

“That’s my biggest complaint,” she said. “Where’s your response? Since Christmas, the city has not said anything to us. Nothing. That’s a problem.”

Editor’s Note: At press time, Jackson Public Schools announced that it will shift to virtual learning on January 5-6, 2023 due to the current water crisis. Currently, 33 schools are reporting low or no water pressure. Meals (breakfast and lunch) will be available for pick-up at each school on January 5th and 6th from 7:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. 

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‘When will water crises end?’ South Jackson Town Hall wants to know

By Earnest McBride
January 9, 2023