By Jay Landers
In recent years, ASCE and many other groups have issued warnings about the perilous condition of water infrastructure in countless cities and towns across the nation. In late August, the consequences of failing to heed such warnings were thrown into stark relief in Jackson, Mississippi. More than 150,000 residents of the state’s capital city had to endure weeks without potable water after problems at one of the city’s drinking water treatment facilities led to a loss of pressure within the distribution system, raising concerns that pathogens could have entered the water supply.
Chronic boil-water notices
Jackson’s drinking water problems are not new. In fact, residents of the city have had to deal with chronic boil-water notices for years. However, the problems have only worsened over time.
In March 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that conditions within the city’s drinking water system “present an imminent and substantial endangerment” to those it serves, according to an emergency administrative order issued that month by the agency. Among its requirements, the order mandated that the city make numerous repairs or replacements to equipment at its drinking water facilities, address dosing processes for disinfection and pH control, and take additional total coliform bacteria samples under certain conditions.
In February 2021, severe winter weather froze pipes within the city’s distribution system, causing a systemwide failure that left some areas of Jackson without water for several weeks. In July 2021, the EPA and the city of Jackson entered into an administrative order on consent under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Under the order, the city was given deadlines for completing such tasks as developing a staffing plan and a repair plan, developing and implementing an asset management plan, and updating its plan for replacing lead service lines.
In June and July of this year, boil-water advisories were issued for Jackson after sampling found excessive levels of turbidity in the city’s water. Then, in early August the city asked residents to conserve water because some areas of the distribution system were expected to experience low pressure while repairs were made at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant, one of Jackson’s two drinking water treatment facilities.
The second boil-water advisory was still in effect in late August when floodwaters on the Pearl River altered the chemistry of the incoming water to be treated at the Curtis facility, interrupting operations. Failed pumps at the facility contributed to the conditions that caused pressures to drop within the distribution system to the point that residents in some areas of the city were unable to flush their toilets.
On Aug. 29, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba declared a local emergency for the city. The following day, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency, imploring Jackson residents not to drink tap water and activating the state’s National Guard to help address the crisis. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency opened water distribution sites around the city. The Mississippi State Department of Health subsequently issued a declaration of a public drinking water supply emergency in Jackson, essentially taking over the operations of the city’s drinking water system.
A “large group” of drinking water operators, mechanics, instrument technicians, and maintenance staff were brought in from other states to help with repairs at the Curtis facility and the J.H. Fewell Water Plant, the city’s other treatment facility, according to an Oct. 14 incident command brief issued by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Teams came from Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Virginia. On Sept. 16, the state-imposed boil-water notice for the city was lifted.
On Nov. 1, multiple news outlets reported that the EPA on Oct. 31 declared Jackson's drinking water safe to drink. Meanwhile, the state of Mississippi and the city of Jackson are separately pursuing independent teams to take over the city's drinking water facilities for one year. On Oct. 14, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency issued a request for qualifications regarding an emergency procurement contract for staffing for operations, maintenance, and management of Jackson's two water treatment plants, tanks, and well facilities. On Oct. 20, the city released a request for proposals for the same services.
Justice Department steps in
Jackson’s water woes are anything but over, and the same goes for its dealings with the federal government, as exemplified by a Sept. 26 letter from the U.S. Department of Justice to Jackson’s mayor, city attorney, and assistant city attorney. The letter — sent by Todd Kim, the assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division — invited the city “to engage in immediate negotiations relating to the City’s recent drinking water crisis.”
“We are prepared to file an action against the City under the Safe Drinking Water Act but would hope this matter could be resolved with an enforceable agreement that is in the best interest of both the City and the United States,” the letter stated.
“The United States also believes that an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health exists (in Jackson), as evidenced by the roughly 300 boil water notices that have been issued over the past two years, the multiple line breaks during that same time period, and the recent drinking water crisis where most City residents did not have access to running water for many days,” according to the letter.
Violations cited in the DOJ’s letter included:
- “Failure to adequately staff water treatment plants with Class A operators,” in accordance with Mississippi requirements.
- “Failure to implement an Alternative Water Supply Plan pursuant to EPA’s Emergency Order.”
- “Failure to comply with the timeline for general filter rehabilitation pursuant to the AOC.”
- “Failure to install corrosion control pursuant to the Lead and Copper Rule.”
- “Exceedance of the haloacetic acids five (HAA5) maximum contaminant level.”
- “Exceedance of single turbidity limits” and “monthly turbidity limits.”
For its part, the DOJ intends “to seek a comprehensive plan for remedying the violations and a schedule for implementing that plan,” the letter stated. “Negotiations would include discussion of accountability mechanisms such as temporary third-party management of the system.” The letter also noted that any agreement must address Clean Water Act violations involving the city’s wastewater system, which has been subject to a consent decree with the EPA since 2012. “Negotiations could therefore address any overlap in the appropriate resolution of the CWA matter with the SDWA claims,” the letter stated.
The DOJ did not respond to a query from Civil Engineering Online regarding the status of any negotiations with the city.
‘Decades of disinvestment’
Returning Jackson’s drinking water system to a state of good repair will require overcoming a host of challenges, many of which have been in play for decades. At the root of the problem, Jackson’s drinking water issues are the result of “decades of disinvestment in the city's water infrastructure,” says Erik Olson, the senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In part, Jackson’s disinvestment has resulted from a population decline in recent decades that has changed the city’s socioeconomic character in key ways, Olson says. “The city in 1980 was a majority white, fairly well-off community,” he says. But many of these residents moved out of the city, often to nearby suburban areas. From a high of more than 200,000 people in 1980, Jackson’s population has dropped to about 150,000, a decline of more than 25%. At the same time, the city now has a “higher concentration and higher population of low-income people,” Olson says. As a result, Jackson has a smaller rate base to pay for its drinking water facilities, and those who remain are more likely to have financial difficulties that hinder their ability to pay.
The city is also now a majority-Black city, according to Andre Perry, Ph.D., a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, a scholar-in-residence at American University, and a professor of practice of economics at Washington University.
The state of Mississippi must share some of the blame for the failure to invest adequately in Jackson’s water system, Perry says. “States have a responsibility in creating systems that don't leave depopulating municipalities vulnerable,” Perry says. And now that the racial demographics of the city have changed, the state of Mississippi has shown a “reticence to create solutions for Jackson that is inextricably tied to race and racism,” Perry says.
Olson agrees that the state has failed to do all it can to support the city. “Somehow Jackson seems to constantly be coming up at the short end of getting the resources it needs to address its problems,” he says. That said, he does not absolve Jackson entirely. “Clearly, some of the responsibility lies with the city.”
Billing, staffing problems
In recent years, Jackson has struggled with its metering and billing operations, a situation that has only compounded the fiscal problems associated with the city’s water system. Several years ago, Jackson entered into a large contract with a third-party vendor that promised to overhaul the city’s metering and water billing systems. Unfortunately, the work was not completed to the city’s satisfaction, Olson says. “Most of that money had to be refunded to the city, but the billing system and some of the metering issues have not been completely resolved.”
Aging infrastructure is another problem that the city has not dealt with adequately, Olson says. For example, the Fewell treatment plant is more than a century old, while much of the city’s distribution system is “just falling apart,” leading to routine water main breaks, especially during cold weather, he says. Meanwhile, Jackson’s distribution system includes lead pipes, and the city has been in violation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule.
Like many water providers around the country, Jackson has had difficulty attracting and retaining trained staff to operate its treatment facilities, says Jason Barrett, Ph.D., an associate extension professor at the Water Resources Research Institute at Mississippi State University. The problem is compounded by the “silver tsunami” wherein the existing, aging workforce is retiring and “not being replaced by younger people,” Barrett says. “Even if you can find (younger workers), it's hard to keep them in the business.”
Any and all solutions to Jackson’s water problems are going to require funding. And lots of it. Currently, the city estimates it will cost “around a billion dollars” to overhaul its water system, says Melissa Payne, the communications director for the city of Jackson.
Mississippi should “use the massive investment” in the bipartisan infrastructure law that Congress passed in November 2021 as well as funding from the American Rescue Plan Act that became law in March 2021, Olson says. “The federal EPA has some resources available itself as well.”
For his part, Perry would like to see the federal government provide more grants for municipal water programs. “As long as governors don't show the ability to distribute funds equitably, then the federal government has to figure out ways” to provide flexible funding for cities “so that they can apply those funds in ways that make sense,” he says.
Although the city undoubtedly will have to raise its rates to help pay for future improvements to its water system, this process needs to account for low-income residents who cannot afford such increases, Olson says. In particular, the city should establish a low-income water assistance program, he notes.
Some have proposed implementing a regional approach to providing drinking water in the Jackson area, a proposal that Perry supports. “If we can create a more regional approach, then we can realistically share the responsibility, the benefits and burdens of that system,” he says. However, any regional water management board instituted for such a purpose must be carefully balanced to ensure that all participating areas are adequately represented, he notes.
Jackson not unique
Although Jackson’s water problems are particularly pronounced, they are not unique to Jackson. “This is not just a problem in Jackson,” Olson says. “We've seen it in many other cities. In many places, we don't even know what the problems are yet because people haven't really looked hard.”
Jackson’s experience highlights the perils of inadequate infrastructure spending, Perry says.
“There's been a lack of investment in infrastructure across the board, including our water infrastructure,” he says. “And so anywhere in the United States, there are accidents waiting to happen.”
If there is to be a silver lining that comes from Jackson’s crisis, it would be greater awareness of the need to maintain water systems, both urban and rural, Barrett says. “I hope we use this as an inflection point to heighten the importance of public water supplies across the nation.”