The Water Crisis in Jackson, Mississippi

The legacy of Jim Crow in a state some call the cradle of the Civil Rights movement still runs deep, writes Natalia Marques.

Mississippi National Guard soldiers help out during the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, Sept. 1, 2022. (U.S. Army National Guard/Connie Jones, Wikimedia Commons)

By  Natalia Marques
Peoples Dispatch

Jackson, Mississippi, made international headlines last summer when from Aug. 30 to Sept. 5, water stopped flowing entirely for over 150,000 residents.

In the past seven months since then, the Mississippi capital’s water system has been plagued with crisis after crisis. And yet, the crumbling water infrastructure remains largely unchanged. Why is this?

The answer lies in the antagonistic and racist attitude that majority white state leadership has towards the Black officials of Jackson, which has one of the largest Black populations per capita of any city in the U.S. Through blocked funding and power grabs, Mississippi has over and over sabotaged infrastructural improvement in its own capital.

A Water Crisis That Never Ended

On March 22, over six months since Jackson’s water crisis over the summer of 2022, The New York Times reported that a water pipe in Jackson was leaking 5 million gallons of water a day — enough to serve the daily needs of a third of the city.

The last boil-water notice, a type of warning issued when there is a problem with the local water system, was as recent as Feb. 19. These sorts of advisories have been frequent since before the start of the year, speaking to a chronic issue. In fact, the city of Jackson has issued over 300 boil water-notices in the past two years. In the past four years, the city has suffered over 7,300 water line breaks.

As recently as Christmas Eve, a freeze caused faucets to once again run dry. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found lead in Jackson’s water supply, and to this day two thirds of water samples still contain lead. No amount of lead in water is safe for children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Jackson’s crumbling and aged water infrastructure leaves the population vulnerable to contaminants such as E. coli, requiring frequent boil-water notices. A double-edged sword, as boiling water increases lead concentration.

Plantation Politics

On Jan. 6, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a self-described socialist and radical, announcedthat the city was able to secure over $800 million in federal funds for the water system.

However, in mid-January, Republican Mississippi State Sen. David Parker introduced the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Act (SB 2889), which would have effectively handed over the city’s control of its water system to the state. The bill ultimately died on March 8, but not before passing in the Senate on Feb. 7. Right now, a federal manager, appointed by the Department of Justice is temporarily in charge of Jackson’s water system.

Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. (Ken Lund, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Act represents more than a bureaucratic power grab. This is just a small example of the distrust that white, conservative state politicians have towards the Black leadership of the Blackest city in the Blackest state in the entire country.

The Utility Act is similar to HB 1020, a bill which just recently passed the Mississippi legislature and was sent to the governor’s desk on March 31. This bill would expand the Capital Complex Improvement District (CCID) to draw a line around the whitest, most affluent parts of Jackson, further segregating an already segregated city. The expanded CCID would extend the authority of the Capitol Police, which are controlled by the state, not the city of Jackson (the capital of Mississippi).

These police officers would not be beholden to Jackson residents, or even Jackson officials. They would be supervised by a separate structure of judges appointed by white officials, taking power away from the democratically elected judges of Hinds County, all of whom are Black. The bill would also divert 18.75 percent of sales tax revenue from Jackson coffers to the CCID.

Last year, Mississippi Capitol Police shot and killed 25-year-old Jaylen Lewis, a Black man. This was the third shooting carried out by Capitol Police in a six-week period.

The legacy of Jim Crow in Mississippi, which many call the cradle of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, still runs deep. The Capital Complex Improvement District expansion is further evidence of this, says Christian leader Jason Coker, who writes in the Mississippi Free Press, “Mississippi history teaches us that we are historically one of the most racist states in the nation, and we continue to hold that position.”

“The majority of our state legislators, who are almost all white and wealthy, want to draw a line around the whitest portion of Jackson and take governing control over it,” Coker adds.

Mayor Lumumba said of HB 1020 and SB 2889, “It is apartheid, as we have called it. It is plantation politics.”

No Black person has held a statewide office in Mississippi since the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction, over 130 years ago. Mississippi has the largest percentage of Black people of any state in the U.S.

Hostile State Govt Withholds Funding 

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves in 2019. (White House, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

When Jackson was experiencing its water crisis in the summer of 2022, conservative Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said at a Hattiesburg event, “I’ve got to tell you, it is a great day to be in Hattiesburg. It’s also, as always, a great day to not be in Jackson.”

Reeves and other statewide officials have repeatedly expressed their distrust of Jackson’s Black leadership.

Reeves excluded Jackson’s own mayor from press conferences about the water crisis. Why? Because the governor’s communications director suggested that the city leadership was not a source of “honest information.”

Except it was Reeves who had repeatedly withheld the funding necessary to repair Jackson’s crumbling water infrastructure for years. Mayor Lumumba has claimed that the state has used funding as leverage to demand more and more control over the city.

Lumumba says the lieutenant governor told him to “give me my airport” in exchange for funding, referring to the state’s long-term ambition to control Jackson’s airport.

This is the same lieutenant governor who asked the Mississippi Free Press, “You remember during Kane Ditto’s administration? He did repair work on water and sewer. So what happened since then?” Ditto was Jackson’s last white mayor.

The depth of the state’s sabotage of efforts by Jackson’s leadership to solve the water crisis was revealed by Hadas Thier’s recent report  in The Nation. As Thier reports, State Sen. John Horhn, who has tried to secure funding for Jackson, claimed that the state has a whopping $4 billion in non-obligated resources. But when Horhn moved to allocate at least $100 million to the needs of the capital city, “the motion died for lack of a second.”

Gov. Reeves has tried to justify the state’s lack of funding by saying “It’s 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.”

However, the city of Jackson has chronic water meter issues, making bill collection extremely difficult. This is an issue which also requires funding, which the state of Mississippi is fighting tooth and nail to block. In September, the NAACP filed a civil rights complaint against the state for diverting funds away from Jackson and towards majority white communities.

As Peoples Dispatch has previously reported, the origin of Jackson’s woes lies in the mass exodus of a wealthy white population after the city desegregated schools back in 1970. Racist attitudes against self-governance by Black people in the U.S. are also evident in the state of Mississippi’s orientation to Jackson’s leadership.

Andrew Jackson statue outside City Hall in Jackson, Mississippi, 2021. (amanderson2, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In a city still contending from the fallout of multiple water crises, the city council was unable to reach an agreement on a renewal of a contract with a trash collections company. Trash pickup has suddenly ended in Jackson.

“A slim majority of the City Council has again voted down a garbage collection contract that would save the City millions of dollars, provide good paying jobs to Jackson residents and prevent us from enduring an unnecessary public health and environmental crisis,” said Mayor Lumumba.

Lumumba has called the federal funding for Jackson’s water infrastructure, now temporarily managed by federally-appointed third party Jackson Water System Administrator Ted Henifin, a “light at the end of this tunnel.” Jackson waits with bated breath for infrastructural improvements to get done as soon as possible—without a hostile takeover from the state government.

Natalia Marques is a correspondent for Peoples Dispatch.  

This article is from Peoples Dispatch.  

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

20 comments for “The Water Crisis in Jackson, Mississippi

  1. kiers
    April 20, 2023 at 12:00

    PS: I forgot to mention:
    in addendum to the list above:

    Jackson has control over a very big airport that sees $1mn passengers per year (actual users, which include the air national guard).
    charging each pax $20 surcharge per trip for Jackson would alleviate 10% of the borrowing cost right off the top (10% of 200mn).

    • Valerie
      April 20, 2023 at 15:31

      That last idea sounds reasonable. As opposed to the other three.

  2. kiers
    April 20, 2023 at 11:48

    I ran some numbers just for people to understand:
    Jackson needs $2bn for a complete water system.

    A $2.5bn self amortizing loan @3% interest over 15 years costs $209mn.

    Jackson’s present full financial budget (as of last year actual number available, 2021) is $400mn.

    Borrowing the full cost raises the budget by 50%.
    Jackson has to figure out a means of paying that, or extending the tenor over a longer term loan….say 30 years.

    OPTIONS for the 15 year loan:
    1) charge each of 150K residents $1400 per year for the water loan for 15yrs [not practical, half of those 150K residents are probably just children]
    2) Raise property taxes by 100% per year [property tax is only about half of Jackson’s income].
    3) Raise sales taxes in Jackson
    4) raise airport landing fees, concession charges etc.
    etc etc.

    This is the nature of hte problem! we have to solve this! period. no ifs ands or buts.

  3. Arie Nieuwenhuizen
    April 20, 2023 at 10:37

    Water in the UK?
    The challenge of building more reservoirs to ensure UK’s water resilience
    What our ancestors were doing was reducing the flooding when the floods came through, storing the floodwater and drinking that water later on. “The water companies have not invested in potable drinking reservoirs since 1992. There is a seemingly direct link between the 1989 privatisation of water companies in the UK and the ceasing of new reservoirs being built.”

    • Valerie
      April 20, 2023 at 16:02

      I wonder if it really matters Arie. The drought problem worldwide will not be fixed by a few downpours. When water restrictions are imposed during winter in places such as Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and the ice caps are melting at a phenomonal rate, one has to wonder why words such as “resilience” are being used.

  4. CaseyG
    April 20, 2023 at 09:16

    Hmmm, and the Andrew Jackson statue still stands in Jackson, Mississippi.
    Maybe they should take it down as he promised much to Native Americans ,” as long as grass grows and rivers run…”.
    Well that didn’t work out so well—-and in 21st century America Black Americans are still treated so poorly in so many places. Of course, who could forget what Michigan did to the People and the city of Flint.

    “Water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” Sadly that is so true in so many places in America.

    • April 21, 2023 at 18:06

      I’m not sure of your claim about Black Americans in the 21st century. Compared to…East Palestine, let’s say? And we already know what demolishing statues brings (brought in 2020): BLM and Antifa violently destroying primarily black neighborhoods.

  5. John Blumenstiel
    April 19, 2023 at 20:14

    Jackson, USA

    Mississippi, your on my mind,
    Mississippi you’ve left behind
    the people who make you real.
    But the power in the country just won’t deal,
    ’cause Old Jim Crow is livin’ just fine.

    America what’s you gonna’ do
    while the people die
    in the sewage flowin’ through
    from Jackson, to Flint, to LA on down?
    Soon old Jim Crow be headin’ to your town.

    Better speak up now, get your folks together
    the mood’s turnin’ bad just as the weather.
    black, white, brown and red
    they’ll drown you in sewage or shoot you in bed.

    What’s happenin’ in Jackson won’t stop there.
    What’s happenin’ in Columbus can happen anywhere.
    There’s a hard rain a’comin’, no time to fear ,
    the time is now ’cause what’s happenin’ in Jackson,
    will be happenin’ here.

    Guns and tanks, advisors too , headed to Ukraine
    ’cause that’s what we do.
    So suck it up Flint and Jackson, too.
    This war’s on the world, but
    also on you.

    Public schools, healthcare, too,
    infrastructure needed but provided by who?
    Our government’s broke in funds and a view
    of what the people need and what they outta’ do.

    There is money to be made and elections to win,
    can’t stop to think about greed and sin.
    They’re in control and having a blast
    and give no thought to how long we’ll last.

    The list is endless ,so much to be done
    but our two party system’s having too much fun.
    They glorify violence and call it patriotic.
    But fighting “them over there” makes the world chaotic.

    Connect the dots, it’s time we know
    Sandy Hook, Uvalde are sequels to the show
    But waste no time, for the time is near,
    ’cause what’s happenin in Jackson will
    be happenin here.

    • Valerie
      April 20, 2023 at 11:56

      Great poem John. Incorporates many of our planetary ills. Thankyou.

  6. April 19, 2023 at 15:06

    Racism? In 2023? Ridiculous.

    • Valerie
      April 20, 2023 at 11:59

      I’m still laughing James. Good one.

      • April 20, 2023 at 14:28

        Apparently, you’re not acquainted with the broader national phenomenon of Socialist- and Democrat-run cities and towns being destroyed (especially by waves of crime enabled by Democrat DAs, mayors and governors, as well as intentionally-induced homeless encampments). Democrats have always made promises to their voting base-for years-especially in neighborhoods and communities comprised mainly of black residents, all the while claiming to be the party of “anti-racism”. However, black people are wising up. They’re “getting off” the plantation and becoming more conservative. And not only for those reasons.

        • Valerie
          April 20, 2023 at 17:49

          I interpreted your original post as satire/sarcasm. Of course i understand the racial divisions and hatred in the US. I apologise for my misunderstanding James.

          • April 21, 2023 at 10:33

            Ah, thanks, Valerie. Yes, I missed it. My fault. I was going to fast as usual. :)

  7. Cart Manchu
    April 19, 2023 at 14:02

    “Right now, a federal manager, appointed by the Department of Justice is temporarily in charge of Jackson’s water system.”

    In other words, Joe Biden and the Democrats have the power to fix the problem, if they so chose to do.

    “State Sen. John Horhn, who has tried to secure funding for Jackson, claimed that the state has a whopping $4 billion in non-obligated resources. But when Horhn moved to allocate at least $100 million to the needs of the capital city, “the motion died for lack of a second.””

    So, not even a single Democrat in the entire State Senate would stand up and ‘second the motion’? I don’t know the rules of the MS Senate by heart, but usually a ‘second’ only takes one single legislator. This motion thus died for lack of any Democratic Party support, as a solitary fellow Democrat likely could have gotten it beyond at least this hurdle.

    The problem is one of greed. The rich and businesses are unwilling to pay the taxes needed for the maintenance of society. This is evident across the board. Water systems from Flint to Jackson are just one set of examples. Civil Engineers regularly produce reports on this, with water systems being only one category.

    This modern policy has bipartisan support, with both parties strongly backing this position of ‘low taxes’, and constantly forcing ‘austerity’ upon the citizens who have to rely on underfunded governments for vital services. This is a fully bipartisan problem.

  8. James White
    April 19, 2023 at 12:25

    I wonder how much time the author has spent living in Jackson. My guess is, not much. In my experience, the loudest voices who criticize Southern states, know the least about them. In many cases, have never set foot there.

    • April 20, 2023 at 14:18

      Exactly. It’s always Democrat-run cities and towns where people of color and their children suffer the most. These days, especially by way of socialist-induced crime.

      • James White
        April 20, 2023 at 15:36

        The water problem in Jackson, Mr. Williamson, like most problems is the direct result of a failure of leadership.

        No community need be poor if it has people and good management.
        No country need be poor if it has people and good management.
        W. Edwards Deming

        • April 21, 2023 at 18:11

          Indeed, Mr. Deming. I’d like to know more about the history of this specific problem which is unacceptable. In a Congress and in Statehouses that are full neoliberal Dems and RINOs, I somehow suspect that a “self-described socialist and radical” will make a difference. I hope I’m wrong.

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