For a month, residents of Jackson, Mississippi went without clean running water. The city's mayor says the problem's decades in the making. That makes Jackson a lesson for the entire country. We talk America's crumbling water system.
Aaron Packman, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University.
Harvey Johnson, Jr., former mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.
Nancy Sylvester, director of Global Learning Connection Center, a day care for children of teenage mothers.
What happened to the water supply in Jackson, Mississippi?
Donna Ladd: “To use words that my reporter Nick Judin used, it's a complex system collapse. And when we say that, it's not just the technological part of the system. It's the fact that we've known this for years, it's coming in one way or another. I mean, we know it. There was a big 2013 study that warned about all of these things. So we know the conditions of them. But there's a systemic breakdown in the willingness to actually do something about it.
"And the city itself, because, like so many cities in the U.S., because of flight, and disinvestment and losing the tax base. And in this case, losing 40,000 residents, taking us from 200,000 to 160,000. But we still have a huge land mass of city with these outdated pipes under them. So we can't pay, we can't afford to keep it up. ... It's a systemic breakdown of federal, state and local municipal areas being able to work together to solve problems together on basic things like infrastructure."
What has the city of Jackson done over the past couple of decades to attend to this known problem?
Donna Ladd: “I think the best way to break it down is to say staunching the bleeding, Band-Aid approach as far as the city itself is concerned. I mean, I can't ... sit here and blame a city that is as beleaguered as our city has been for not having the resources to be able to overhaul the water system.
"Some of the numbers that we've come up with, the least amount that they need is $600 million. And then, as you said earlier, it keeps climbing from there. I mean, if the money's not here, the money's not here. So what that means is that the state should be at the same table with the city, side by side. This is the capital city.
“You know, the state is no stronger than its capital city. That's absurd. And so they should be side by side with the city saying, OK, how are we going to work together to get federal help? What is it that we can do? How can we help? But the opposite happens. You know, one of the things our governor said just recently was, Well, you know, Jackson residents should pay their water bill, so they should go collect the water bill.
"Well, there's a whole issue around faulty billing that we've been through. But beyond that, it's like the city tried to get the state, and the state legislature passed legislation to allow payment plans for the water bill. And the governor vetoed it last year. And so that's like working against us, and so the money doesn't come in. But the water billing money is not enough to pay for what we're talking about here.
"And we have to work with the federal government, as we've discovered. A lot of the disinvestment and helping municipal areas across the country came during the '80s and particularly the Reagan era. Which was kind of pulling back on financial assistance, for environmental improvements, those kinds of things. And that is one of those perfect storm moments where it got so much worse afterwards as far as not being able to pay for things. And so when you've got everybody working against each other, or ignoring each other, then it's a terrible situation."
We keep using this phrase 'crumbling.' Is that a fair description of some of these water systems?
Aaron Packman: "Most of the infrastructure we have in the eastern half of the United States is quite old. Just for point of comparison, I live in Chicago. We're still using the water intakes from Lake Michigan that were built in the 1960s. And in places like Philadelphia, the water infrastructure goes back 300 years. So clearly infrastructure that age needs a lot of maintenance to work properly. And it's very hard to do, because most of the pipes are underground and inaccessible. So we definitely have an issue with its aging, deteriorating water infrastructure in a lot of the country.”
Where should early targets be for the federal government if it's going to pump a whole lot of money into infrastructure?
Catherine Coleman-Flowers: “First of all, those people that never got the infrastructure should get it first. So, I mean, in this conversation we were talking about municipalities when most of the United States is rural. And most of them are not in municipalities. So should they still be denied access to infrastructure, especially water and wastewater infrastructure? And we're seeing in some places, I'm actually doing a project right now with The Guardian where we are documenting wastewater problems throughout the United States, it's not just a one situation. It's not just Jackson, Mississippi. It's not just even Detroit, which is having a lot of issues and water shut offs.
"And if we shut off the water, you shut off sanitation. And I think the other thing that we have to do is make sure that the policy makers, if we're going to have solutions, we cannot separate wastewater from water. Because a lot of people in their mind, because they can flush the toilets, they assume that everybody else in the U.S. can do the same thing. That's the reason why we were able to do a study to show that there was hookworm in Lowndes County. And it's probably in other areas, too. We just haven't looked for it yet. So that's the first thing we need to do, give it to places that don't have it.
"We also need to identify where those places are. There are no accurate numbers on how many people do not have wastewater sanitation, because that was taken off the census in the 1990s. So if we're going to make decisions based on what numbers we have, we're still going to leave a lot of people behind. And a lot of these people are in rural communities, or they are poor people or people of color. And we have to unpack and unfold that.
"And I think we can't talk about infrastructure, and where the dollars are going or where they have gone, unless we deal with the social justice issues around those decisions. Because to people who are not like me, they see it just as simply a political decision. But socially, it has an impact on people that look like me. And we need to make sure that our voices are heard and that part of the solution is getting those dollars to those communities that have been left behind.”
Aaron Packman: "This is a rare opportunity, because you don't usually have these problems get elevated to the presidential level and a commitment to make an investment. So I would advocate for modernization of our wastewater treatment facilities, a lot of which used 50-year-old plus technology. And also fixing some of the hard problems with the water distribution system and also the wastewater system, the things that are less accessible, that often get ignored and are not fully maintained. So this will be expensive, but it will make a big difference."
From The Reading List
Mississippi Today: "‘A profound betrayal of trust’: Why Jackson’s water system is broken" — "Janna Avalon, a 72-year-old retired newspaper editor, lived out the mid-February ice storm and weeks-long water outage just feet from South Jackson’s empty water tower."
Mississippi Free Press: "Under the surface,: Jackson residents struggle from Neglected water system" — "What does it mean to be without water? It is innumerable small humiliations: the splash of a toilet flushed with a bucket, days on end without a shower, no clean clothes. It is weeks without a cooked meal, a sink full of unclean dishes, brushing one’s teeth with water from a bottle, if a bottle can be found."
The Guardian: "Biden urged to back water bill amid worst US crisis in decades" — "Democratic lawmakers and advocates are urging Joe Biden to back legislation proposing unprecedented investment in America’s ailing water infrastructure amid the country’s worst crisis in decades that has left millions of people without access to clean, safe, affordable water."
New York Times: "U.S. infrastructure earns a C– ahead of a Biden investment plan." — "Bridges in disrepair, underfunded drinking water systems, roads riddled with potholes. President Biden’s next ambitious goal is to fix the nation’s infrastructure, and a new report suggests he has his work cut out for him."
Mississippi Today: "As Jackson residents suffer during historic water crisis, state leaders keep their distance" — "Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann is one of the most powerful residents of Jackson, where about 40,000 of his neighbors — mostly Black — are in their third week without running water after a historic winter storm froze plant equipment and burst many water pipes."
NBC News: "Jackson, Mississippi has a water crisis because our state legislature has a race problem" — "Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves told the media this week, 'I do think it's really 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.'"
This program aired on March 26, 2021.