Mississippi National Guard hands out water as Jackson’s main water facility fails

Aug 30, 2022, 4:45 PM | Updated: Sep 6, 2022, 11:13 am
Residents of rain-battered Jackson, Mississippi, are now contending with little or no water pressur...
Residents of rain-battered Jackson, Mississippi, are now contending with little or no water pressure in their homes after the city's main water treatment facility failed August 29, leaving them without enough water to flush toilets or fight fires. (Barbara Gauntt/Clarion Ledger/USA Today Network)
(Barbara Gauntt/Clarion Ledger/USA Today Network)

(CNN) — Mississippi’s capital lacks enough water pressure to fight fires, flush toilets and meet other critical needs because its main water treatment facility began failing Monday, the governor said — a problem officials blame on longstanding water system problems and this week’s river flooding.

The state declared an emergency for Jackson Monday evening while scrambling to distribute drinking and non-drinking water to up to 180,000 city residents, Gov. Tate Reeves said. The National Guard is being called to help with the distribution as crews work to get the water treatment plant back online, state officials said.

Officials announced numerous bottled-water distribution sites. The state is also setting up a tanker system to provide water for fire trucks as Jackson loses the ability to take water from fire hydrants, officials said.

Residents of all ages were seen waiting in lines more than a mile long for at least two hours Tuesday for just one case of bottled water.

“They need to get it together, for like the last few weeks — even for like the last few months — Jackson always had a water problem,” Victor Martinez told CNN’s Ryan Young.

Residents are also being told to conserve the water resources they do have and boil any water they use for three minutes.

Explanations for the failing system are complicated: Damage this summer to pumps at the main water treatment facility made failure increasingly likely as the summer progressed, the governor said; and flooding of the Pearl River after heavy rains last week affected treatment processes and therefore the amount of running water the system can provide, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said.

This week’s troubles come as Jackson’s water system has been plagued with problems for years and with the city already under a boil water notice since late July for what the state called a water-quality issue.

State Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr. said he didn’t have running water Monday, but on Tuesday, discolored water came out of his faucet that he used to flush the toilet. He and his family used bottled water Tuesday morning to brush their teeth, Crudup told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota.

Crudup said that although the city has experienced water issues in the past, rain played a part in the current water emergency.

“It’s been building up for years, but we have had an unprecedented amount of rain in the last two to three weeks, and it just kind of created this havoc, what we are dealing with right now,” he said.

Because of Monday’s failure, officials announced all Jackson public schools will shift to virtual learning Tuesday.

Hospitals are also feeling the strain. Jackson’s University of Mississippi Medical Center released a statement Tuesday saying the Jackson Medical Mall air conditioning is not functioning properly “because the water pressure feeding its chillers is too low.” Portable restrooms are being used in locations experiencing low water pressure, the statement said.

The university medical center statement also said a fire watch was declared for its Jackson-based facilities, “because fire suppression systems are fed by the city water system. Low pressure in the systems may cause them to be less effective.”

The state is “surging our resources to the city’s water treatment facility and beginning emergency maintenance, repairs and improvements,” Gov. Reeves said, adding, “We will do everything in our power to restore water pressure and get water flowing back to the people of Jackson.”

Water for those in the state’s most populous city would have to be provided “for an unknown period of time,” Reeves said. The water shortage is expected to last “the next couple of days,” according to the mayor’s office.

President Joe Biden has been briefed on the water crisis in Jackson and the White House has been “in regular contact with state and local officials, including Mayor Lumumba, and made clear that the Federal Government stands ready to offer assistance,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday afternoon.

“FEMA is working closely with the state officials to identify needs, and the EPA is coordinating with industry partners to expedite delivery of critical treatment equipment for emergency repairs at the City of Jackson water treatment facilities,” she said.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency said “ensuring all people have access to healthy and safe water is a top priority.”

“We are in communication with officials in Mississippi and stand ready to provide support should the State request federal assistance,” the EPA statement read. “In the interim, we are available to provide technical support and information to Mississippi officials as they navigate their plan to address the immediate concerns at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant.”


Water system issues go back decades, mayor says


The problem this week stems from one of two water treatment facilities in the city: the O.B. Curtis plant, which is run by the city of Jackson, according to the governor.

The main pumps at O.B. Curtis were severely damaged recently, and the facility began operating on smaller backup pumps about a month ago, around the time the latest boil water notice began in July, the governor said, without elaborating about the damage.

The governor said he was told Friday that “it was a near-certainty that Jackson would fail to produce running water sometime in the next several weeks or months if something did not materially improve,” the governor said.

But Lumumba said during a news conference Monday it was only a matter time before the water system failed because Jackson’s water system has been faced serious issues for years.

“I have said on multiple occasions that it’s not a matter of ‘if’ our system would fail, but a matter of ‘when’ our system would fail,” the mayor said, adding that the city has been “going at it alone for the better part of two years” when it comes to the water crisis.

In early 2020, the water system failed an Environmental Protection Agency inspection. The agency wrote the drinking water had the potential to be host to harmful bacteria or parasites, based on observations of the water’s turbidity, or cloudiness, as well as “disinfection treatment concerns, and/or the condition of the distribution system.”

In March 2020, the EPA issued an order requiring the system to develop a plan to replace and repair monitoring and treatment equipment; to “address dosing processes for disinfection and pH control; and to take more coliform bacteria samples, among other things.

The city also has endured weather-related shutdowns.

In February 2021, a winter storm shut down Jackson’s entire water system, leaving tens of thousands of residents without water for a month amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Residents have been under some sort of boil water notice or advisory several times since that winter storm, including the state-ordered notice posted in July.

“We were here two Februarys ago when we had system failures, and the world was watching us and the world is watching us again,” Lumumba said during Monday’s news conference.

The mayor also pointed to recent flooding from the Pearl River as an event that triggered the latest water pressure issues.

Because O.B. Curtis received additional water from the reservoir during the flooding from last week to this week, the facility had to change the way it treats the water, which has led to the reduction of water being put out into the system and reduced tank levels. This is affecting the water pressure at residents’ homes, he said.

“As one crisis may be diverted, another one rears its head,” Lumumba said Monday during a news conference after addressing the flooding in the city.

O.B. Curtis is meant to provide about 50 million gallons for the city daily. The other plant, which usually provides about 20 million gallons daily, has been approved to ramp up its output amid the shortage, authorities said.

In July 2021, the EPA and the city entered into an agreement to address “long-term challenges and make needed improvements to the drinking water system.” The EPA recently announced $74.9 million in federal water and sewer infrastructure funds for Mississippi, mentioning Jackson without naming specific projects.

However, Lumumba has said it would take $2 billion to fully repair and replace the dated system, which city, state and federal officials say also has too much lead in its water in some places.

Lumumba declared a water system emergency Monday. The proclamation noted not only the flooding but also numerous previous “unsuccessful attempts to rectify water system issues.”

As for restoring water pressure and flow and performing emergency maintenance and repairs, the state would split the cost with the city, Reeves said Tuesday.

“We will cash flow the operation, and the city will be responsible for half the cost of the emergency improvements that we make,” the governor said in a statement released on Twitter.


Systemic issues also contributed to water crisis


Lumumba previously told CNN a lack of political will and years of neglect on a national level has prevented Jackson from getting the help it needs to fix its water and sewer crisis. Besides the infrastructure issues, the plant has also been faced with staffing issues, according to the mayor and governor.

“A far too small number of heroic frontline workers were trying their hardest to hold the system together, but that it was a near impossibility,” the governor said Monday.

Jackson’s ongoing water system problems already had some residents reporting low to no water pressure and raw sewage flowing in city streets and neighborhoods. Other residents took to Twitter — where #jxnwatercrisis and #jacksonwatercrisis were trending — to post pictures of buckets and even tubs full of brown water coming out of their drains.

Some on social media also pointed to systemic and environmental racism as among the causes of the city’s ongoing water issues and lack of resources, given that 82.5% of Jackson’s population identifies as Black or African American, according to census data, while the state’s legislature is majority White.

NAACP president Derrick Johnson called out the Mississippi governor on Twitter Tuesday.

“.@tatereeves, what are you waiting for!? We demand on behalf of the Jackson communities that you request federal aid from @FEMA and other agencies to ensure people have access to a basic human right: WATER,” Johnson’s tweet read. “Make the damn call. This is personal.”

Jackson has undergone drastic changes in the past half century. Its economic decline has occurred rapidly over the past two decades, fueled by population decline and demographic shifts.

The city’s population shrank from almost 200,000 in 1990 to about 160,000 in 2020. Its decline in population in these three decades was driven almost entirely by White flight. The city was 56% Black in 1990. By 2020, 82% of the city’s residents were Black.

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Mississippi National Guard hands out water as Jackson’s main water facility fails