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Jackson’s water system may need billions in repairs. Federal infrastructure funds aren’t a quick fix.

“We’re already in a life-or-death crisis,” said a Jackson resident and activist who is helping to distribute water in the city.

JACKSON, Miss. — Residents in Mississippi’s capital — who are currently without safe drinking water from the tap and in some neighborhoods lack enough water pressure to flush toilets — had good reason to hope that last year’s ambitious $1 trillion federal infrastructure deal would help. 

President Joe Biden shared the city’s struggles when promoting the infrastructure bill in August 2021, saying, “Never again can we allow what happened in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi.” 

In a state where financial windfalls are rare, the federal package could be transformational for Jackson, which desperately needs funds to fix a brittle system in which sewer lines often break and residents regularly experience outages and notices to boil their water. Mississippi is set to receive $429 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to fix its water and wastewater systems over the next five years, mostly through loans, some of them forgivable, and grants provided through  the Environmental Protection Agency.  

But as the city remains under a state of emergency, it could face a lengthy wait for some of these funds — and a battle for the city’s share. One of two state agencies responsible for pushing out millions of dollars in federal infrastructure funds said it could be at least mid-to-late 2023 before any allocations roll out. And Jackson won’t be the only one coming to the table; the money is meant to reach communities across the state. 

Image: Tyisin Peoples, left, and Joshua Freeman distribute bottled water to local residents at the Sykes Park Community Center in Jackson, Miss. on Aug. 30, 2022.
Tyisin Peoples, left, and Joshua Freeman distribute bottled water to local residents at the Sykes Park Community Center in Jackson, Miss., on Aug. 30. Edmund Fountain / The New York Times / Redux

Even if the state gave Jackson all of the funds Mississippi is set to receive, it wouldn’t be enough. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, has said the price tag to overhaul the city’s water infrastructure could balloon into the billions. That far exceeds the money allocated under the infrastructure law.

“We’re already in a life-or-death crisis,” said Danyelle Holmes, a Jackson resident who is helping to distribute water in the city and works as a national social justice organizer with Repairers of the Breach, which mobilizes low-income voters, and the Poor People’s Campaign. “Lives have been compromised daily due to the water crisis and pushing this another year to 2023 is simply not going to work for the citizens of Jackson, especially when we talk about humanity and preserving life.”

No deaths linked to the water outage had been reported as of Friday, but health advocates have expressed concerns about the vulnerability of dialysis patients, who need access to clean water for treatment.

There is one mechanism for repair funding that could reach Jackson sooner. This year, the Mississippi Legislature created a $450 million water infrastructure funding program with money the state received through the Congressional Covid relief package that passed in 2021. But the plan requires cities and counties to put up matching dollars, and Jackson only has about $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to commit, according to state Sen. John Horhn. Applications for the program opened on Thursday, and some of that money could be awarded by the end of the year. 

Mississippi Governor Declares Water Emergency For State's Capital, Jackson
Ty Carter, with Garrett Enterprises, fills jugs Wednesday with non-potable water at Forest Hill High School in Jackson, Miss.Brad Vest / Getty Images

The infrastructure in Mississippi’s capital has been likened to “peanut brittle,” prone to water main breaks, perennial service disruptions and sewage spills onto residential streets. Some pipes in the system were installed before the Great Depression. There’s also a history of deferred maintenance, which has culminated in repair costs eclipsing the city’s entire budget.

The consequences of kicking upkeep down the road have been acute. Boil-water notices are common in Jackson and concerns among residents about contaminants slipping through are persistent. In 2016, routine testing found elevated lead levels, leading state health officials to warn pregnant people and young children not to drink the city’s water, an advisory that remained in place as of last year

Even when there’s no advisory, some locals shun drinking from the tap. That means paying a bill each month for a service they can’t fully use and also at the grocery store for cases of bottled water. Wallets took an even bigger hit in February 2021, when many residents lost access to running water for a month after a cold snap froze machinery. Some locals were unable to work as businesses closed.

Attempts to fix the problems have been marred by insufficient revenue at the city level in the wake of decades of population loss. There’s also been a lack of aggressive investment by the state Legislature that to many Black Jacksonians is a painful modern-day reflection of Mississippi’s long-troubled history with race: Jackson is a majority-Black city with Democratic leadership, while the statehouse that is located there has been dominated in recent sessions by primarily white male Republican leadership. And despite Mississippi having the largest percentage of Black residents in the country, all the state’s statewide elected officials are white. 

Lumumba has said he’s not in a position to turn down state aid but noted earlier in the week that the city had been “going it alone” in recent years. Members of the city’s legislative delegation attempted last year to get the city an additional $42 million from the state, but failed; the bill containing the appropriation died in committee.

State Rep. Shanda Yates, an independent who lives in Jackson and led the effort, said a $42 million direction appropriation from the Legislature likely would have flowed to the city sooner, compared to the American Rescue Plan matching grant program, which is only just getting underway.

A direct allocation to the city from the Legislature, she explained, might have meant that the city could begin some work “sooner rather than later.” 

“Maybe we could have already started them,” she said of the repair work that the money would have covered. 

Some residents have long contended that the racial disparity in state representation is why the city’s crisis has been allowed to fester without substantial financial support from the Legislature.

“What is really sad is that we have the resources and the technology to prevent this kind of disaster,” Holmes said. “The neglect to prevent this kind of disaster is a direct failure of state leadership.”

While the relationship between city and state leadership has been bruised in recent years, Lumumba and Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, have more recently put on a united front. Thursday was the first time the two appeared at the same news conference concerning the current water crisis.

A spokesperson for Reeves did not respond to requests for comment; a spokesperson for Lumumba did not comment.  

While many across the country are preparing for an extended Labor Day weekend, Jackson remains in the throes of a water outage. At times, tens of thousands of residents across the city have had little to no running water. Locals were already dealing with a boil-water notice that had been in effect since July 29 and were preparing for potential flooding after days of heavy rain when the latest crisis struck. 

On Aug. 29, Jacksonians had barely breathed a sigh of relief after learning the city would likely be spared from severe inundation, when Reeves announced that the capital’s water system was on the brink of collapse.    

City officials have said the deluge impacted operations at one of its water treatment plants, fueling the disruption. An emergency rental pump has been brought in to help increase output.  

Some of the longer-term fixes, previously cited by city officials, could involve replacing water lines across the capital at a cost upwards of $11 million. Before the recent outage, repairs at water treatment plants were expected to exceed $35.6 million. And addressing some of the problems in the city’s sewer system it is estimated to cost $30 million.

The $429 million that Mississippi will receive from the federal infrastructure law over the next five years will primarily flow through two agencies. 

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality is administering the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program. (Revolving fund programs recycle money that has been repaid by previous borrowers to future ones, helping cities and counties that may not have enough revenue from their tax base to pay for repairs.)  The agency initially received about $17 million and said it expects to start allocating funds in the second half of 2023.

Although the money hasn’t rolled out yet, Jan Schaefer, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Jackson was recently awarded about $31.7 million for a project involving its sewer system from a previous round of federal funds. The city has also completed initial planning required to pursue another $163 million in funding from the state’s revolving loan programs, she said in a statement, but has not yet submitted applications. 

Once the required paperwork is complete, she said, the projects “could likely be funded over the next several years.”

Another portion of the infrastructure money will flow into the state Department of Health’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. That fund already has more than $19 million from the act, which it’s begun folding into planned allocations, according to Les Herrington with the agency’s Office of Environmental Health. The agency didn’t immediately share details on its timeline for awarding additional funds. 

In the 2021 budget year, $27 million in revolving loans from the state’s federally supported drinking water fund were awarded to Jackson to make improvements to treatment facilities, but no new requests have been made since last year, according to the state Department of Health.  

As the process of disbursing federal funds inches forward, residents continue to wait in water distribution lines stretching more than a mile for a basic necessity. A definitive date for service restoration has not been given.

On Friday morning, the city said water pressure levels were improving, but not yet at ideal standards. 

Sam Mozee, director of the Mississippi Urban Research Center at Jackson State University, says his team is tracking what happens with funding going forward. His colleagues know firsthand how crucial the money will be — the campus shifted to virtual classes due to the outage.

“Health, safety, economic vitality — water affects everything,” Mozee said. “The whole system, everything is at stake.” 

Bracey Harris reported from Jackson; Daniella Silva reported from New York.