For more than 20 years, C.J. Rhodes has called Jackson, Miss., his home, and he says his fellow residents are exhausted after dealing with unsafe drinking water for far too long.
Rhodes, the pastor of Mount Helm Baptist Church, Jackson’s oldest historically African American congregation, says that every year the city lacks the resources to provide clean water for its residents, and many are fed up. The population of Mississippi’s capital city is 83% Black, and one-quarter of its residents live below the poverty line — more than twice the national rate.
“Jackson's water and sewer issues have been a plague for about three decades. But the last three or so years have rapidly sped up the deterioration of various aspects of the water system,” Rhodes told Yahoo News. “We knew even back in the '90s — you just don’t drink the water. You get a filter. You buy bottled water.”
For more than a month, some 150,000 residents in Mississippi’s largest city have been without drinkable water, drawing national media attention.
The most recent problems started in July, when the main pumps at the Curtis Water Treatment Plant were damaged. Authorities blamed the flooding of the Pearl River, combined with the city's aging water system.
The main pumps were pulled offline on Aug. 9, leaving residents in Jackson without running water. The facility started pumping normal pressured water to residents on Sept. 5, but it is still unsafe to drink because it is cloudy, indicating the possible presence of bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
After the water pressure was restored, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba tweeted: “We are grateful for this short term progress; however, we must remain vigilant and unified to realize long term solutions that will rectify the decades of damage to our system.”
As of now, the city is under a boil-water notice, which means residents must boil any tap water for one minute before using it. This is a notice that city dwellers know too well, after being under a boil-water advisory for more than a month now. Even though there is water to flush their toilets, residents are advised to keep their mouths closed while showering because the water is still hazardous.
While Jacksonians are coping with the crisis, businesses such as hotels and restaurants have been struggling to stay afloat. Some companies were forced to close temporarily during the peak of the crisis. Many have to pay out of pocket to provide bottled water, canned drinks and bagged iced as a substitute for running water. On Monday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, asked the federal government to aid businesses that are facing economic hardships caused by the water crisis.
In a letter to U.S. Small Business Administration Director Kem R. Fleming, Reeves requested a Small Business Administrative Declaration, which can provide economic injury disaster loans for businesses. “Jackson businesses have been hit incredibly hard by the ongoing water crisis,” the governor said. “They have shown their resilience and their commitment to this city throughout the years, and my administration will continue to do everything it can to support them during this difficult time.”
At this point, residents are suffering, and many Jacksonians say their government has failed them. “A lot of citizens I’ve talked to are upset with city and state leadership. They feel like they haven’t done enough,” Rhodes said. “And people who can leave are leaving, and others who can't leave, quite frankly, feel trapped.”
We can neither deny the history & present reality of economic racism in Jackson, nor ways city leadership over the years has failed to act decisively. Working together across racial and political lines is necessary, and much more like wartime diplomacy than a group assignment. pic.twitter.com/ekrNpYerU5
— CJ Rhodes (@RevRhodes) September 4, 2022
A 2021 study by the Brookings Institution found that the city’s lack of funds is the underlying problem. “In addition to a declining population, Jackson’s high percentage of low-income residents — in one of the poorest states in the country — limits steady and predictable revenues for public services, including drinking water and wastewater,” the study stated.
Currently, the city, state, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency are attempting to find solutions and “develop near and long-term plans to stabilize the water system,” Michael Regan, the EPA's administrator, said in a tweet on Sept. 7.
But the elected officials have not always seen eye-to-eye. “You can see the divide. They are trying to work for the best now,” Mac Epps, the program director of Mississippi Move, a nonprofit organization involved in response efforts, told Yahoo News.
The city needs roughly $2 billion to address its infrastructure problem, but the total could be more than that, according to the mayor.
"I talked about Jackson having a comprehensive $2 billion problem. I didn't say that our water system costs $2 billion, and honestly, that estimate is probably a more conservative estimate,” Lumumba explained in a recent interview with the Jackson Free Press.
While the city yearns for funds to fix the water crisis, it was recently excluded from President Biden’s $47.1 billion funding request to Congress. In a statement on Sept. 8, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., called on the president to amend the request and include Jackson in the funding proposal.
“Jackson’s water crisis is nothing short of a full-blown emergency, and it’s disappointing and concerning that the city’s water and wastewater infrastructure needs did not make it in the administration’s $47.1 billion emergency request. Support for Ukraine, COVID-19, monkeypox or natural disasters in other states should not take priority over the needs of Jackson residents to have access to clean water,” Hyde-Smith said.
Although the water is currently back on, city residents are aware that the aging water system could fail again at any time. “Frankly, until the pipes are replaced and the treatment plants are overhauled, essentially, this will continue to be a crisis that one little ice storm or major rain or super-hot day or super-cold day could have us back in the same situation again,” Rhodes said.