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While drought has parched the West and threatens the region’s water supply, in Jackson, Mississippi, it’s deluge that’s overwhelmed the water system and threatens normal life.
Flooding taxed the city’s frail water system, leaving many unable to flush toilets.
What’s more shocking is that this is becoming a routine occurrence in Jackson. Residents had already been under a boil-water notice since late July. It wasn’t the first time.
Freak storms. In February 2021, it was a freak winter storm that froze and burst pipes and left many residents without water for a month.
A broken system. In January of this year, the Clarion Ledger published a report from Jerry Mitchell of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that detailed the problem: erupting sewer lines unable to deal with rainstorms, leaking 100-year-old pipes, faulty meters, malfunctioning water treatment plants, an understaffed water utility unable to keep up and a lack of money devoted to any one problem, much less all of them.
A visit from the EPA. Back in November, when the Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan visited Jackson to talk about water equity, he saw the city’s issues for himself.
A local school he visited was cleared out earlier that morning due to low water pressure, and that same evening, officials issued a boil-water notice due to what they said was a “bad batch of chemicals” used to clean the water, according to a local report.
Soon after, Regan referenced Jackson when he announced the EPA would give Mississippi $75 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law for water projects. The money is to be split across the state.
“We have been actually lifting up our persistent water challenges for the better part of two years, crying out for any assistance that we could get,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, said on CNN on Tuesday.
Jackson resident and Mississippi state Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr. told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on Tuesday that his family couldn’t boil water Monday night because there was nothing but air coming out of the faucets.
By Tuesday morning, discolored water was coming out of his faucets, which he could use to flush his toilets. But the discolored water is unsafe to drink.
“This is something that has been occurring for years, but sometimes it takes these catastrophes to make sure that this disaster comes to light,” he said.
The state steps in. Concerned there’s not enough water pressure to fight fires, the state’s governor stepped in on Tuesday to activate up to 4,500 members of the National Guard. Read CNN’s full report.
“We will do everything in our power to restore water pressure and get water flowing back to the people of Jackson,” the state’s Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said Tuesday.
But the state did not help earlier. The city asked for $47 million to get ahead of the crisis with water and sewer repairs after the 2021 storm. The state’s legislature gave Jackson only $3 million, according to a report from CNN in April.
Help for crumbling infrastructure. The need to address the problem of crumbling infrastructure is something that has bipartisan agreement. Republicans and Democrats in Washington came together to pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law last November.
Of Mississippi’s four US House members, only one, Rep. Bennie Thompson, voted to spend money on things like water resources. In the Senate, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi was among the Republicans who helped the bill defeat a filibuster to become law. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith opposed the spending. See how your senators voted for the infrastructure package.
It’s probably not enough money. The infrastructure law dedicates $283 million for water infrastructure, according to Wicker, but as of July, a White House information sheet lists $75 million in this type of funding for the entire state for fiscal year 2022, most of which is focused on lead pipe replacement.
Jackson’s mayor has said his city “literally” needs $1 billion for its entire water system to be replaced.
A disagreement on funding. A separate bill, the American Rescue Plan, passed by only Democrats during the pandemic, also created funding for water programs. Mississippi is making these funds available through a grant program in which it will split costs with cities like Jackson, according to the nonprofit Mississippi Today.
Lumumba and Reeves have previously disagreed on exactly how much money Jackson got from the American Rescue Plan: In early August, Reeves accused Lumumba and the city of squandering $90 million in Covid-19 relief funds. Lumumba said the city got only around $44 million and that the money went to the water system and public safety, according to a WJTV report from before the floods but during the boil-water notice.
Splitting costs. Reeves also made clear in his disaster declaration statement that he would be splitting costs for the emergency actions with the city.
Problems for a decade. The EPA has cited Jackson multiple times over the past decade, including most recently in July 2021 demanding plans to fix the water system.
Camerota asked Crudup Jr. whom he would blame for the situation.
“I’m not here to play the blame game right now. We’ve been passing this buck around for years. This thing has been decades in the making,” Crudup Jr. said. “Even the last two years, we’ve been dealing with things over and over again, and so I’m just glad right now that the governor has decided to go ahead and step up to the plate and help us out right now.”
A lot of people worry about drinking water. Clean, safe drinking water is a top environmental concern of Americans.
A majority, 56%, said in a 2021 Gallup survey that they worry a great deal about pollution of drinking water. An additional 24% worry a fair amount about drinking water.
But people are not as worried as they used to be – 72% said they were worried a great deal about pollution back in 2000. Democrats tend to be more worried than Republicans.
In separate polling in May of this year, Pew Research Center’s director of political research Carroll Doherty notes that lower-income adults were more likely to cite the safety of drinking water as a problem for their local communities. Black Americans were also more likely than White and Hispanic people to cite the safety of drinking water as a problem.
That communities of color are more likely to be affected by water issues is a well-documented and sad phenomenon.
A government-appointed civil rights commission in Michigan found that systemic racism helped contribute to the Flint water crisis. Read more from CNN’s reporting in 2017.
Years later, as Politico reported in 2020, many Flint residents still don’t trust the water.