Politics

The Next Major Water Crisis Is Right Around the Corner

A man sits, head in hands, in front of a table holding a case of water bottles.
A man sits in front of a table holding a case of water bottles on March 7 in Jackson, Mississippi. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

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For the past month, thousands of residents of Jackson, Mississippi simply haven’t had water: not safe water, not reliable water. After winter storms knocked out electricity there, as they did throughout the South, the damage also wreaked havoc on Jackson’s brittle water system. Each issue is connected to the other: the aging pipes that need to be replaced, the lead that can seep into the water when the pipes burst, the condition of the water treatment plants. The faucets are back on in Jackson for now, but the pipes aren’t going to hold up much longer. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Nick Judin, a reporter at the Mississippi Free Press, about how Jackson became a city without water, and how it could happen again, all too soon. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Last week, the city’s boil-water order was lifted. Do you feel like the crisis is over?

Nick Judin: The underlying problems behind the crisis have not even begun to be solved. Please don’t look away now, because a permanent solution has to be found, and we haven’t even begun that yet.

The crisis is really a chain reaction that gives us a map of the water infrastructure problems that the city has. In the middle of February comes these two severe freezes, the kind the state is completely unused to. Water comes in from a reservoir northeast of the city that then hits these water screens at the water treatment plants. It’s so cold that it can’t get through the screens that freeze.

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It’s ice.

It’s ice. Now, what happens then is the basin that is supplying the city’s pipes with water runs low and the pressure in the system drops. People no longer have water. That’s just the beginning of the problem. That’s why no one had water at the beginning. The problem is, once that system loses pressure and everyone loses water, you have miles of pipes in the system that are over 100 years old. So after they freeze, the act of refilling them is absolutely destructive to these pipes. We had more than 100 water main breaks at the final count over the month.

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When you went outside, did you see cones everywhere?

You see breaks in the street. You see water running out. You see work crews everywhere, and you don’t see any water coming out of your faucet. It was this process of slowly refilling, slowly pushing the pressure back up and then repairing every main break. That’s why it took a month.

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To get to the root of Jackson’s current crisis, you have to go back more than 50 years and talk about how the city itself has changed. Because this water problem can’t be disentangled from larger changes in the state of Mississippi: the desegregation of schools, white flight.

In 1969, the clock finally runs out on the state of Mississippi segregated school system, with Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education. The 1970 school year in Mississippi was like a lightning bolt. You could just see kids being pulled out of school, and the creation of a lot of segregation academies, many of which are still relatively well-regarded schools in Mississippi today. By the time the dust settles in 1980, Jackson never sees population growth ever again. At its height, I think the city had a little bit more than 200,000 people. Today, the best estimate for that is 160,000.

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What does that have to do with the water?

You build a water infrastructure for the people you have at the time. What ends up happening is you build that system and then you have white flight, you have capital flight, you have the suburbanization of many of the metropolitan areas around the country. Then that tax base now lives outside the city limits.

And there’s no commuter tax or bridge and tunnel fare.

To my knowledge, there is not nearly enough support coming from the cities and towns around Jackson to support its burden.

You’re saying Jackson built its system to meet this larger population, which to me says, they must have a really robust system with fewer people using it. How did that become a problem for the city?

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In 1972, there was a serious amendment to the Clean Water Act that put the burden of responsibility for a lot of wastewater treatment in the municipalities around the United States on the core of these metropolitan areas. A huge, huge amount of this construction was supported with federal grants. By 1987, in our era of austerity and federal pullback, there’s a transition. We stop paying for a lot of these systems with federal money and it devolves to what’s called the state revolving loan funds. Now, you may notice the problem with that. The issue with the loan is that it’s loan. So when you see an end to the federal money that supports a lot of these systems, there’s then a system that’s made for a certain population and that population is no longer there. That becomes a real problem for any city looking to keep its system afloat.

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Because you’re having to maintain something that’s much bigger than you need.

You’re having to maintain something that’s much bigger than you need and you no longer have the federal support that made it possible in the first place.

You’ve said Gov. Tate Reeves has been uniquely resistant to addressing the crisis in Mississippi’s waters. Do you think he doesn’t necessarily feel like he needs to fix this problem?

There doesn’t seem to be any direct communication between the governor and the mayor. I’m not really sure how something like that happens if the governor really, really wants to fix the problem.

You spoke to a representative from Jackson who worried that federal involvement actually might not help the state, because it might mean that state legislators feel like they are off the hook and don’t need to step in and help the city.

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Well, let me be very clear: Federal involvement will absolutely help the state. I don’t think there’s any situation in which the state gets out of this problem without federal assistance. I don’t think that should be surprising, because, if you want to go and look back at the last time the city really had a working water system, there was immense federal aid coming in to the Public Works Department to make the entire system whole. So when you want to talk about how to get out of this situation, you need improvement at the level of the city, you need investment at the level of the state, and then you need involvement at the federal level. I don’t think any one of those pieces can be missing. I think his concern is not that federal help might not help, but that, with federal engagement, the state will kind of bow out of the whole situation. The state has to address the relationship it has with its capital city. It’s incredibly cheap and easy for representatives and senators who don’t live in the urban areas of the state to complain about Jackson.

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