One Month Without Water

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S1: Nick Juden has lived in Jackson, Mississippi, for nearly his whole life, so since forever, he’s known the rule of thumb around here, don’t trust the water. What comes out of the tap is likely to have lead in it. And when the power goes out, the water is likely to shut off, too.

S2: I’ve been drinking the water in Jackson for parts of my life. These days I tend to use bottled water. It’s that bad? Yeah. I mean, it’s never been like this. This is definitely new.

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S3: When Nick says it’s never been like this, what he means is that for the last month or so, thousands of Jackson residents simply haven’t had water, not safe water, not reliable water after winter storms knocked out electricity here the same way they did throughout the south, it wreaked havoc. And in Jackson, the havoc lasted for weeks.

S2: I think pretty much everyone in Jackson, Mississippi, knows when there’s a freeze coming, fill up your tub. And that’s really just in case. And I don’t think even a tub would have been enough for these two freezers and what they did to the water system as a whole. But this is something that we do live with.

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S1: Nic’s a reporter now works at the Mississippi Free Press. He spent a lot of time talking to his neighbors about how they’ve been getting by, says during this water crisis, he found there were two kinds of people. First, there were people like him. People whose lives were disrupted.

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S2: To be disrupted is to have every part of your life get just a little bit harder, a little bit more expensive, a little bit more humiliating, a little bit more painful. I’ve got to go buy water for every little task. I got to drop serious extra cash on gas to travel out of the city to buy food, to get a hotel just so my kids can take a shower at night. Every one of those little moments, the stink of not showering or the feeling of toilet water splashing on you when you try to flush, watching your paycheck get eaten up by all these little workarounds for all the problems that you have. They compound it makes you feel like the basic level of society has broken down.

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S1: But being disrupted wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to someone in Jackson. You could also be totally derailed.

S2: I mean, not all of us have the money, the transport or the health to just ride this out. I spoke to one couple, Tomiko and Otis Smith, who brought to my attention people going through home dialysis during this crisis and Mississippi’s second in the nation for diabetes. I think the rates like 15 percent. I’ve heard of Jackson residents going three, four days without dialysis during this crisis. I mean, that is unacceptable. It could be deadly. Absolutely. It could be deadly. It could be damaging long term and it could be deadly. So really, I mean, that’s what it means to be in this water crisis. The best case scenario is a month of expensive, fatiguing, demoralizing frustration. But the worst case scenario is a threat to just the things that keep us alive.

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S1: There’s a bitter joke, Nick told me while we were talking that Mississippi is formally known as the landmass between Florida and Louisiana, two states that are better known and far better resourced. What he’s getting at is it’s easy to feel forgotten in Jackson, Mississippi. Well, last week, the boil water order was lifted.

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S2: Do you feel like the crisis is over, the underlying problems behind the crisis have not even begun to be solved? Please don’t look away now because it sustained attention and a permanent solution has to be found. And we haven’t even begun that yet.

S3: Today on the show, how Jackson became the city without water, even though the faucets are back on for now, the pipes are not going to hold up much longer. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around.

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S1: You can think about the core of Jackson’s water problems, much like the pipes that run underneath the city, each issue is connected to another one, forming a labyrinth that can be hard to navigate there, the aging pipes that need to be replaced. There’s lead that can seep into the water when the pipes burst. Not to mention the politics. It’s a lot to keep track of. And it all came to a head last month when winter storms knocked out power and then water to Mississippi State Capitol.

S2: So let me walk you through what the Jackson water crisis was. On a technical level, the first problem that you have is we need upgrades to our water treatment plants. We pulled this up right here. I’m imagining you with like a like a schematic of oh, my, my, my room. Yeah. I mean, my office looks like I’m a conspiracy theorist right now. I just. All that’s missing is the red yarn. So 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 of 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 its 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. The pressure in the system drops. People no longer have water. Now, 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 pipes in the system that are over a hundred years old, miles of these pipes. So after they freeze, the act of refilling them is absolutely destructive to these pipes. Under the city. We had over 100 water main breaks, I think, at the final count over this following month. So not only that look like like when you went outside, was it just cones everywhere, you mean? Sure. You know, you see 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. So it was this this process of slowly refilling, slowly pushing the pressure back up and then repairing every main break as it happens. And that’s why it took a month.

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S1: And it’s not just the water mains that are breaking Jackson’s water billing system is broken to and without a functioning billing system, there’s no money to maintain all the pipes.

S2: So the city of Jackson has not had a working water billing system in quite some time. And the problem, does that mean like you live in Jackson, so pay your water bill? So what that means in the city of Jackson and this includes me, is you will not get a water bill for months or a year and then you’ll get all of that water bill at once. And this applies to individuals. It applies to businesses. It becomes incredibly difficult to tell who owes what and when they owe it. And that ends up damaging the city’s enterprise fund. Now, the Enterprise Fund is the revenue that then pays for repairs to the system and keeps it afloat. The city attempted to address this problem a little bit under a decade ago. It entered into a contract with a corporation. I’m sure you’re familiar with Siemens. And it was a 90 million dollar contract to install new water meters and to create a new billing system that would really get the city current. And the promise was like over 100 million dollars in savings for the city’s water system. That ninety million dollar contract with Siemens turned into an absolute nightmare. Why? Because it turned out that none of it worked. The the city has been in litigation with Siemens for years. It finally they settled that early last year. And the result of that was Siemens repaying the city 90 million dollars or the full value of the contract.

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S1: Now, what did it mean? That it didn’t work? So people not getting their bills were the meters, not reading the amount of water properly?

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S2: No part of the system played well together. But essentially what happens is because those systems don’t work well together, none of them really remained after the contract, they sort of had to be removed. And so the sum total of what happened with the city through the Siemens contract is is basically the city paid lawyers 30 million dollars in order to give an international conglomerate a 10 year, 60 million dollar loan at zero percent interest.

S1: Because they settled the lawsuit for the cost of the contract, which was 90 million dollars, and that’s they had to pay legal fees.

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S2: It’s great to settle the litigation for the cost of the entire contract. I mean, the city did need to recoup that money, but it still has to pay its legal fees. Yes. And then also, you know, almost a decade has passed without the initial problem being solved.

S1: So now it feels like Jackson is back at square one and they’ve lost a decade and the billing system doesn’t work and the pipes themselves are still not fixed.

S4: That’s the long and short of it to get to the root of Jackson’s water crisis.

S1: And he says you’ve got to go back more than 50 years and talk about how the city itself has changed because this water problem, it 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.

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S2: We’re all familiar with Brown vs. Board of Education. But in Mississippi, the real deathblow to the segregated public school system was something called Alexander versus Holmes County Board of Education. The 1970 school year in Mississippi was like a lightning bolt. You can just see kids being pulled out of school. You can see the creation of a lot of these segregation academies, many of which are still relatively well regarded schools in Mississippi today.

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S1: So things are changing and kind of cracking down, going back to a really deeply segregated place.

S2: Well, so it was already segregated at that point. But what you see then is a reaction to integration. And the result of that is that by the time the dust settles in 1980, Jackson never really sees population growth ever again. At its height, I think the city had a little bit over 200000 people today. The best estimate for that is one hundred and sixty thousand. What does that have to do with the water? Well, you build a water infrastructure for the people that you have at the time. And what ends up happening is you build that system and then you have white flight, you have capital flight, you have the suburbanization of of many of the metropolitan areas around the country. And then that tax base now lives outside the city limits. But here’s the thing. The city of Jackson swells every day to this day. You see people drive in from the bedroom communities and surrounding towns around Jackson. They use the roads, they use the utilities, they go to work and then they bring that money back to their communities. And that’s where the tax bases.

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S1: So there’s no like commuter tax or there’s no bridge and tunnel fair.

S2: To my knowledge, there is not nearly enough in support coming from the cities and towns around Jackson to support the burden on Jackson and that that extends to the level of the surrounding communities and the level of the state.

S1: Well, so here’s a question for you, which is you’re saying Jackson sort of built its system to meet this larger population. So to me, I hear that. And I think, oh, well, then 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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S2: In 1972, there was a serious amendment to the Clean Water Act. And what that did was it it put the burden of responsibility for a lot of the wastewater treatment. In the municipalities around the United States, on the core of these metropolitan areas at this time, you do see the surrounding communities getting a lot of the benefit. But the federal government at the time knew what a burden that would be. So a huge, huge amount of this construction was supported with federal grants. Billions of dollars all over the country went into building and expanding these systems. What you see as these systems expand and as these systems are built is by nineteen eighty seven. In our era of austerity and federal pull-back, 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 of 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.

S1: That becomes a real problem for any city looking to keep its system afloat because you’re having to maintain something that’s much bigger than you need.

S2: 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.

S5: When we come back, Jackson’s water, it’s back on now, but for a long term fix, you’d need to fix the relationship between the city of Jackson and the state, and that won’t be easy.

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S1: So what’s happening in Jackson seems like a classic situation where the state would come in and help a hurting municipality. So can we talk about why the state is not or has not been rushing in here to help Jackson? I mean, you’ve said Governor Tate Reeves has been uniquely resistant to addressing the crisis in Mississippi’s water system, right? That’s right. It since before this year, like he refused to sign a bill that came to his desk in twenty twenty.

S2: One of the ways that the city has tried to extricate itself from this problem was a bill in the legislature that would have allowed a city like Jackson, specifically Jackson, to begin a a flexible repayment plan on these long standing water debts, because, of course, if you don’t receive billing and then all of a sudden you have a thousand dollar water bill, not everyone can square that circle. That bill received unanimous support in the legislature. It passed unanimously and that is a Republican dominated majority in the legislature.

S1: It made it just to be clear from how you’re describing it, this doesn’t sound like a giveaway, that just this just sounds like giving people a little flexibility. No pay their bills.

S2: Yeah. This was not some big state grant that that would have just you know, it’s not a debt jubilee for everyone in the city of Jackson, but it is a a flexible repayment plan that tries to address the unique situation. The Jackson and Tate Reeves alone is the reason that didn’t pass last year. And in his veto message, you know, he didn’t mention Seamans. He didn’t mention any of the specific problems that Jackson has. What he said was that, you know, Jackson’s problems aren’t unique. There are other cities around Mississippi that have what are billing problems and that he wouldn’t sign a bill that would allow them to essentially to receive special treatment for that.

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S1: Here’s the thing. I don’t get the governor, Tate Reeves. Doesn’t he live in Jackson?

S2: The governor’s mansion is in Jackson. I would not say that the governor’s core constituency lives in Jackson.

S1: So he doesn’t necessarily feel like he needs to fix this problem.

S2: Well, I mean, you know, I can sprint without stopping from the governor’s mansion to city hall. And yet 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.

S1: I mean, your boss, the co-founder of Mississippi Free Press, she’s written that this is straight up racism because it’s worth pointing out that Jackson is majority black, right?

S2: Jackson is. Eighty two percent black. Mississippi as a whole is, I believe, thirty eight percent black. So, yes, there is there is a majority black population in the city. And that is a result of, you know, as I mentioned, years and years of of white flight to the surrounding area outside the city.

S1: So the white Republican governor doesn’t feel like he needs to get involved in a problem in the majority black state capitol. I would love to see him more involved. So you’ve laid out a pretty strong case that Jackson is in a really terrible but preventable situation if only the political leaders will get together and figure it out. So I’m wondering what next steps look like from here. Like Republican Senator Cindy had, Smith has introduced a bill that’s that’s aimed at providing some assistance to Jackson. Have you had a chance to look at it?

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S2: Yeah. So I actually wrote a piece on that bill. And it’s an interesting bill. There’s a lot there that is worthy of consideration. I also have a lot of questions about that, Bill. You know, the bill does three things. Number one, it increases the authorization for something called the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers section to 19 project program. Now, that program is used to divert federal funds to infrastructure projects all over the country. The the problem with that, that part of the bill is that it increases an authorization from twenty five million to forty seven million. But that authorization has been in place since 2007. The money has never been appropriated to that authorization. So people so it’s just been sitting there.

S1: It’s basically an IOU sitting in in Washington for Jackson, for Jackson, whom 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’re kind of off the hook and they don’t need to step in and help the city.

S2: 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. And I don’t think that should be surprising, because if you want to go and you look, 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 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 and the problem to really be solved. So I think his concern is not that federal help might not be federal involvement 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 just incredibly cheap and easy for representatives and for senators who don’t live in the urban areas of the state to complain about Jackson, to, you know, it’s canned heat.

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S1: It’s interesting. I was going to ask you, like, if you could wave a magic wand, what would you do to improve the situation in Jackson? And it’s really the relationships and mending those. You’re absolutely right. I mean.

S2: It’s about relationships at all levels between city and state, between state and federal government, between all of them, but it’s also about trust. You have to repair that trust. You have to have people sitting in the room talking to each other. I really can’t stress that enough. If the governor and the mayor can’t sit down and have a human conversation, I don’t see the problem getting solved.

S5: Nick Juden, thank you so much for talking to me.

S2: Thank you guys for paying attention to this.

S5: Nick Juden is a reporter at the Mississippi Free Press, and that is the show What Next is produced by Alan Schwarz, Mary Wilson, Kamal Dilshad, Daniel Hewett and Davis Land. We are led by Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Henry Garba is going to be in this host chair tomorrow and I will be back on Thursday. Catch you on.