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Burst pipes in Jackson, Mississippi, are just the latest of the city's water woes

Jackson, Mississippi's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility's sedimentation basins in Ridgeland, Miss., shown in September.
Rogelio V. Solis
Jackson, Mississippi's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility's sedimentation basins in Ridgeland, Miss., shown in September.

When Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba appeared before cameras and microphones earlier this week, he was there to deliver another grim report on the city's troubled water system, which officials have been struggling for months to patch while they plan for a more permanent fix.

Lumumba said the winter storm that swept across the country last week —plunging much of the South into a rare deep freeze — had burst more pipes in a badly compromised distribution network, forcing a new boil-water notice to be issued.

"Obviously, we are dealing with the worst case scenario," he said a day after declaring a local state of emergency.

"We are dealing with an old, crumbling system that continues to offer challenge after challenge," he said.

Resident Halima Olufemi has experienced those challenges firsthand. First, it was low pressure — a drip from the faucet. Then, "the day after Christmas, for about two days, I didn't have water."

Olufemi is a lifelong Jackson resident and an activist with the People's Advocacy Institute, which has been helping distribute bottled water. She says the latest problems with tap water have been mostly an inconvenience.

City residents have been without water or with no water pressure so frequently, she says, "I was like, oh, here we go again. We're kind of used to it."

Jackson's woes came to national attention in August, when the capital city's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant was overwhelmed by flood waters. For a full week, some 180,000 people went without water and couldn't even flush toilets.

Freezing temperatures add to existing water problems

This time, the problem is different, says Brian Smith, the Environmental Protection Agency's Safe Drinking Water Branch chief for Region 4, which covers Mississippi.

The plant, he says, is "making a relatively abundant amount of water compared to the past couple of years."

"But when we do have these freezes, there are impacts that come from the distribution system," Smith says.

That means more line breaks that sap supply, reduce water pressure and have the potential to increase contaminants.

In February 2021, a similar freeze damaged pipes and resulted in no running water for weeks for most of the city.

Four years ago, that distribution system experienced 10 water line breaks per mile per year, says Dennis Truax, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Mississippi State University. By comparison, a 2018 study found that water main breaks in U.S. averaged from 11 to 14 breaks per 100 miles.

"Even if the water treatment plant worked perfectly, the distribution system is in such poor condition that the water is likely not safe to drink reliably," Truax says.

Pipes buried close to the surface are more prone to freezing

The problems with water mains and service lines that go to homes are exacerbated by the fact that in the South, pipes are more susceptible to freezing, says Smith, who is based in Atlanta, Ga.

"Down in the South, we're not used to a lot of the put a lot of deep freezes," he says. "So some of the pipes are [buried] relatively shallow."

After the near collapse of Jackson's water system last summer, the federal government took notice. Last month, the Department of Justice stepped in to broker a deal between the the city of Jackson and the Mississippi State Department of Health to get the system repaired, appointing a third-party manager to oversee the process.

The move is meant to be an interim step while the sides negotiate a judicially enforceable consent decree, according to The Associated Press. As Mississippi Today notes, however, there are already consent decrees in place that go back to at least 2013. So far, they have failed to solve the problems.

The Department of Justice also filed a complaint on behalf of the EPA against the city for failing to provide water that reliably meets Safe Drinking Water Act standards. Jackson has been consistently in violation of those standards since at least 2018, according to Mississippi Today.

That has contributed to what Erik Olson, the senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council, has said is "decades of disinvestment in the city's water infrastructure."

A lack of funding is short-circuiting proper maintenance

Until about the 1980s, the federal government covered 60% to 70% of funding for water infrastructure, with the remainder split between state and local governments, says Mae Stevens, a water policy expert with Banner Public Affairs.

"Now it's about 5% coming from the federal government and 95% from the state and local level," she says.

The local funding comes mostly from payments from individual users, which is a problem in Jackson, where 1 in 4 residents live in poverty and many struggle to pay their water bills.

To be sure, the city of Jackson has had some high-profile funding missteps. The city signed a contract for new water meters that didn't work properly. Tens of thousands of customers never received a bill, resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenue.

But that lack of money means for years, Jackson's water system has been a series of emergency fixes rather than a rational program of maintenance, Stevens says.

"You're just patching and not actually replacing," she says.

President Biden's Infrastructure Bill, signed into law in 2021, has made a big difference, tripling the share the government is spending on water infrastructure each year for the next five years, Stevens says.

But it's still not nearly enough: not for Jackson, nor for many cities like it throughout the country.

"We've been chronically underfunding water infrastructure in the United States writ large for the last 40 some years," she says. "Now you're seeing more and more crises happening because more and more bills are coming due, because there hasn't been this preventative maintenance all along, because there hasn't been money."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.