Officials are distributing water cases to capital city’s 150,000 residents; ‘It is going to be a massive undertaking,’ governor says.
By Alyssa Lukpat
and Cameron McWhirter
Updated Aug. 30, 2022 4:07 pm ET
The city of Jackson, Miss., which has struggled with a crumbling water infrastructure for years, has no reliable running water, authorities said.
Pumps at the main water-treatment plant in the state’s largest city failed Monday, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said at a press conference, leaving the capital with little to no water—and sometimes raw reservoir water—flowing through the pipes.
The poor-quality water and the low water pressure meant it wasn’t safe for people to drink the water or to brush their teeth with it, state officials said. Instead, officials were working to distribute cases of bottled water to the city’s roughly 150,000 residents.
“It is going to be a massive undertaking,” Mr. Reeves said. He added that it could take three or four months to repair the plant.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, said at a press conference Monday that recent floodwaters had inundated the plant. The facility has released less water to residents in recent days because it was struggling to treat the water.
“It is no secret to any of us—we have a very fragile water-treatment facility,” Mr. Lumumba said.
Mr. Reeves declared a state of emergency over the water crisis, saying the city, which runs the plant, didn’t have enough water to fight fires or flush toilets. The city’s public schools shifted online on Tuesday because of the water shortage.
Mr. Lumumba on Monday declared a water system emergency, and said the shortage is likely to last several days.
Residents and business owners in the predominantly Black city have long complained about the city’s water system, saying they have dealt with water outages and boil-water advisories for years. Since last month, state health authorities had warned residents to boil their water—which may contain bacteria, viruses or parasites—after pumps at the plant began to fail.
Velma Warner, a 53-year-old Jackson resident, said that she is tired of having to boil water every time she wants to cook, wash dishes or brush her teeth. She said the water shortage this week has made the situation even more hectic.
“This is just uncalled for—what we are experiencing here,” said Ms. Warner, a church nursery coordinator.
First Presbyterian Day School, a private Christian school with about 600 students, has been buying extra pallets of bottled water and recently ordered a tanker truck filled with water as a backup, said Swayze Pentecost, a school administrator in charge of admissions and marketing.
“We’re kind of taking it day by day,” she said. “The water goes fast. The kids are needing their water.”
Jackson’s water system has struggled for years to hold up during severe weather. The city has multiple aging water plants that are often strained when the Pearl River, which runs through Jackson, overflows. The city has also contended with aging pipes and sewage cascading through the city.
Officials in Jackson have said it would cost more than $200 million to fix Jackson’s water infrastructure.
Last week, heavy rains and floods battered central Mississippi, including Jackson. Many roads in the capital were impassable but only one home had been flooded, Mr. Lumumba, the mayor, said Monday.
The threat of catastrophic flooding in the area has largely receded since then, and the National Weather Service said Monday that the water levels in the Pearl River were dropping.
Mr. Reeves declined at the Monday briefing to answer a question about whether the flooding had strained the water-treatment plant in Jackson.
A possible failure at the plant had been looming for weeks. Mr. Reeves said the facility had been operating on small backup pumps after the main pumps were severely damaged. He added that city officials had agreed to pay for half of the emergency improvement costs at the plant.
In February 2021, a severe winter storm caused equipment in city treatment plants to malfunction, causing water pressure to drop throughout much of Jackson. Water main breaks hit the system, and many residents went weeks without running water. Mr. Reeves activated the National Guard at that time to assist with bottled water distribution.
In July 2021, Jackson officials reached an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to improve its drinking-water system. The agency had found during an inspection in 2020 that, among other issues, two of the city’s plants weren’t adequately staffed and officials weren’t sufficiently testing the tap water for lead and copper.
The water crisis in Jackson had exacerbated longstanding tensions between the Republican-dominated state government and the Democratic-dominated city government over services, policing, infrastructure and other issues. In 2021, Gov. Reeves suggested the state might consider taking over the city’s water system. City officials have rejected such proposals in the past.
On Monday, five state senators sent a letter to Gov. Reeves asking him to call a special legislative session to resolve the water crisis.
“We need to act now,” the letter stated.
The White House said President Biden had been briefed on the water crisis in Mississippi and the administration was in close contact with Mr. Lumumba and the Mississippi Department of Health.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One Tuesday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was working with Mississippi to identify needs and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was coordinating with industry “to expedite delivery of critical treatment equipment for emergency repairs at the city of Jackson water-treatment facilities.”
“We will continue to partner closely with the state and local officials to support impacted communities in Mississippi and stand ready to assist further as soon as we receive an official request from the state,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said.
—Ken Thomas contributed to this article.
Appeared in the August 31, 2022, print edition as ‘Mississippi City Runs Out of Safe Water’.