Flooding, treatment plant failure leaves Jackson, Mississippi without drinking water

Mississippi's capital city is coping with a water crisis after a treatment plant broke down, leaving thousands without drinkable water. The governor declared a state of emergency and asked the National Guard to help distribute water to Jackson's 180,000 residents and businesses. Nick Judin of the Mississippi Free Press joined John Yang to discuss the concerns.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The capital of Mississippi is coping with a water crisis. The governor has declared a state of emergency. And the governor has asked the National Guard to help distribute water for the 180,000 residents and businesses of Jackson.

    John Yang has the story.

  • John Yang:

    Amna, officials can't say how long it's going to take to get safe running water coming out of taps in Jackson. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said there isn't enough water to flush toilets or even fight fires.

    Today, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said this situation has been building for a long time.

    Chokwe Lumumba (D), Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi: I have said on multiple occasions that it is not a matter of if our system would fail, but a matter of when our system would fail.

    I have stood before you not only in terms of our local media, but national media, and shared that the city of Jackson, even when we are not under a boil water notice, even when we are not contending at that present moment with low pressure, that we are in a constant state of emergency.

  • John Yang:

    For years, Jackson residents have contended with cloudy water coming out of taps, disruptions in service and frequent boil water notices.

    Nick Judin is state reporter for Mississippi Free Press, a nonprofit online news organization.

    Nick, thanks so much for being with us.

    What is it like now for you, as a Jackson resident, and for your neighbors?

  • Nick Judin, Mississippi Free Press:

    Well, thanks for having me, first off.

    It's been over a month without clean drinking water. We have had kind of intermittent boil water notices on and off over the last few months. I kind of describe it, right now, we're in the acute phase of the Jackson water crisis. Many of us can't flush our toilets. The schools are shutting down. Restaurants are struggling, obviously. The fire department is concerned about water pressure.

    Prior to this period, we were in kind of this chronic period, where you have regular boil water notices. You're not sure if you can trust the water. There's constantly problems at our water treatment plants.

    So this has been going on. It predates the 2021 freeze that lost us water for a month, and it will continue on after water has been reestablished to the city.

  • John Yang:

    Did the flooding of the Pearl River, did that bring us to this acute phase?

  • Nick Judin:

    So, that is something that the city and water plant leadership have said contributed to the problem. It's unclear right now how much that flooding is the cause of the kind of total breakdown we're experiencing.

    There are also some pump failures that — this goes back to about a month ago at O.B. Curtis. And the staffing issues, which really are key here, a lack of Class A water operators and just regular maintenance staff, that has been going on for months and months, well, well before this current phase of the crisis.

    So, the flood is not helping, but I don't know that it's the only cause.

  • John Yang:

    O.B. Curtis being one of the water treatment plants in Jackson.

    You talk about staffing. I mean, today, you have a story about the EPA saying that they don't have any records about the — about Jackson trying — trying to meet this staffing problem.

  • Nick Judin:

    Right.

    So I spoke with the EPA on Friday. Now, this was before we had any idea or before I certainly had any idea that we'd be entering this kind of acute phase of the crisis coming this week. What they told me was that they had not — they had reached out to the city of Jackson to see the progress that they have made in finding staffing, again, both Class A water operators and regular maintenance technicians.

    And they had not been given any results that showed efforts to acquire the staff, job fairs, interviews, things like that. Now, I asked the mayor today at the press conference, why would the EPA not have a record of any of these actions?

    The mayor's response was that they were ongoing and, essentially, they will be shared with the EPA once the process is complete.

  • John Yang:

    Nick, you talked about sort of being in the chronic phase before this.

    Where do these problems come from? And why has it been so hard to address them?

  • Nick Judin:

    Well, I mean, the first time that Jackson had a serious water outage was in 1989. Obviously, those kinds of water outages have not been as significant as what we saw last year and what we're seeing now, but it has been a system that has been in great decline for decades now.

    The problems are compounding over time, a lack of investment, a lack of maintenance. A lack of staffing obviously is huge. And all of these things build on top of each other and compound, until you have a moment like this.

  • John Yang:

    Does race and sort of white flight within Jackson, is that — the Jackson area, does that — has that played a role?

  • Nick Judin:

    So, if you look at the history, the historical context of the city of Jackson, the integration of the school system and the suburbanization of America absolutely led to white flight, and it led to capital flight from the city of Jackson.

    Now, you can see, over several decades, until about the '80s, the footprint of the city expanding as the city annexes more and more territory around it. And, after that point, even though the flight began before then, you just see population declining since then.

    Now, when the tax base leaves, when the city grows, these cause an enormous amount of effort that the city is then responsible for, while dealing with less investment and less support.

  • John Yang:

    Nick Judin of Mississippi Free Press, thank you very much.

  • Nick Judin:

    Thank you so much.

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