"There are no white people there": Jackson's water crisis, explained

Years of neglect, racism and poor infrastructure have created a "constant state of emergency"

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published September 2, 2022 5:45AM (EDT)

Cases of bottled water are handed out at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site on August 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Brad Vest/Getty Images)
Cases of bottled water are handed out at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site on August 31, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Brad Vest/Getty Images)

A combination of poor infrastructure, climate change and racism have long contributed to water issues in Jackson, Miss, and now heavy rainfalls have left close to 150,000 residents without access to safe drinking water. 

As recent as July, the city was under a boil-water notice due to high levels of turbidity (cloudiness). This week, flooding from rainfall has caused pump failures for the primary water treatment plant, creating water shortages for two major hospitals and the Jackson Public School District. 
Little has been done to restore a deteriorating water system in Jackson, which is 82 percent Black. Extreme weather patterns are now exposing the role racist infrastructure plays in contributing to unequal water systems across the country, in communities that are majority Black. 

In a news conference Tuesday, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the water crisis has developed due to "a set of accumulated problems based on deferred maintenance that has not taken place over decades". The city has a history of experiencing system-wide failures due to extreme weather. 

"No one ever thought about upgrading [Jackson's] infrastructure, mainly because there are no white people there."

Last February, winter conditions caused pipes to freeze and lose pressure, leaving many areas without water for several weeks. Then in July, Jackson entered into an SDWA Administrative Order on Consent to address concerns identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The most recent crisis has caused Jackson public schools to shift to virtual learning since Tuesday. As state and local leaders scramble to address the new crisis, community organizations and local churches are providing bottled water across the city. 

Operation Good Jackson has been distributing water to residents and making sure that people with disabilities as well as the elderly have access to clean water. 

Gino Womack, who is the program director of Operation Good, said that no effort has been made to take care of the south side of Jackson – which is majority-Black and impoverished. Leadership has failed to address its "horribly old" plumbing and water systems.

"No one took time to make investments into the city of Jackson to upgrade its system over the years," Womack said. "And the water, if it ever goes out in Jackson, south Jackson's going to be the first to suffer."

Governor Tate Reeves requested an Emergency Measures Declaration from President Biden to address the water crisis. On Wednesday, he tweeted that an emergency rental pump will be installed at Jackson's water facility. 

"More to be done, but the work is happening at an incredible pace!," Reeves tweeted.

In the past, Mississippi's Republican governor has blamed systemic failures on the city. 

"I do think it's really important that the city of Jackson start collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money," Reeves said in response to an effort by residents to increase a local tax on themselves. The move came after the city suffered a historic winter storm that froze plant equipment and burst water pipes, leaving 40,000 of Jackson residents without running water for weeks. 

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, has echoed similar sentiments saying that the "prime mover" in addressing Jackson's ongoing water crisis has to be the "city itself."   

"You remember during Kane Ditto's administration, he did repair work on water and sewer. So what happened since then?" Hosemann said in a recent interview with the Mississippi Free Press. Ditto was the last white mayor of Jackson. He served from 1989 to 1997. Hosemann went on to blame Jackson's current mayor for failing to make "routine repairs" and begin "major infrastructure projects" to fix the water and sewage systems. 

But Harvey Johnson Jr., the first Black mayor to succeed Ditto, disagreed. Johnson has repeatedly warned about the city's water problem.

"During my administration we spent over $200 million on water and sewer infrastructure improvements over 12 years," Johnson told the Mississippi Free Press.

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Mississippi Republicans, like Gov. Reeves, have withheld financial resources necessary for maintaining the capital city or helping residents in their time of need. Reeves, for instance, vetoed bipartisan legislation that would help provide relief to residents with past-due water bills. In a social media post, Reeves defended the decision. "Other cities have issues too, why should only Jackson get a carve-out? There are needy Mississippians who would rather not pay their bills all over."

Republicans in the statehouse shot down a proposal last year that would have allowed Jackson to raise a citywide sales tax by 1 cent for water and sewer system repairs. Instead of prioritizing water infrastructure issues, however, GOP legislators have focused their efforts on banning critical race theory in schools, outlawing abortion and keeping trans students from participating in sports. 

"Water related problems have been going on for a very long time so this is not a crisis that occurred only this year," said Mukesh Kumar, who previously ran the Jackson Department of Planning & Development. 

In a city like Jackson, with a shrinking tax base, maintaining the same level of water infrastructure without the necessary resources is not cost-efficient, Kumar added. The expected investment would cost billions of dollars as Lumumba, the city's mayor,  estimated. Local financial resources are not enough to fix the problem. 

The bipartisan infrastructure funding passed by Congress last year provides the Environmental Protection Agency with more than $50 billion to invest in drinking water programs, replace lead pipes and protect waterways from climate-related threats. All but one of the state's Republican members of Congress voted against the bill exposing where their priorities lie. 

"What we keep preaching to politicians is that the environment in which you raise a child is the attitude you're going to get from that child," Womack said. "No one ever thought about upgrading [Jackson's] infrastructure, mainly because there are no white people there."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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Environmental Racism Explainer Gop Infrastructure Jackson Mississippi Republicans Tate Reeves Water Crisis