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Mississippi’s capital loses water as a troubled system faces a fresh crisis


Officials in Jackson, Miss., said the city’s largest water treatment plant was failing. Jackson’s water system was already in poor repair, and days of torrential rainfall have disrupted water treatment operations.

By Rick Rojas


The drinking water system in Mississippi’s capital was nearing collapse on Tuesday, severing access to safe running water for more than 150,000 people as officials scrambled to confront what they described as the “massively complicated task” of distributing bottled water and devising a plan to restore service.


The water system in Jackson, the state’s largest city, has been in crisis for years, crippled by aging and inadequate infrastructure and the lack of resources to bolster it. Residents have long contended with disruptions in service and frequent boil-water notices, including one that had already been in effect for more than a month because of cloudiness found in water samples.


The situation worsened this week as officials said that the city’s largest water treatment plant was failing. Homes and businesses were left with little to no water pressure. And officials warned that whatever did flow from faucets was not safe to consume, as it was probably untreated water that was coming straight from the city’s reservoir.


“Until it is fixed, it means we do not have reliable running water at scale,” Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi said during an emergency briefing on Monday evening. “It means the city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets, and to meet other critical needs.”


And, he added, it was unclear how long it would take to bring that back.


Days of torrential rain have raised the threat of flooding in Jackson and engorged the Pearl River, which snakes through Jackson, and the Ross R. Barnett Reservoir, a 33,000-acre lake northeast of the city. Though the rising water failed to reach the high levels that had been feared, city officials said it rose high enough to affect water treatment operations.


“The water shortage is likely to last the next couple of days,” city officials said in a statement on Monday.


However, state officials offered a more dire outlook, saying the city’s water system appeared to be barreling toward a breaking point even before the floods. “It was a near certainty that Jackson would begin to fail to produce running water sometime in the next several weeks or months if something didn’t materially improve,” Reeves, a Republican, said on Monday.


During the briefing, the governor said that state officials were still trying to assess the circumstances inside the water treatment facility. He said that the plant’s two primary pumps had stopped operating, leaving the plant reliant on backup pumps whose status had become unclear. “It’s not operating anywhere near capacity,” Reeves said of the facility, “and we might find out tomorrow it’s not operating at all — we’ll find out.”


Emergency management officials began mobilizing a sprawling response, including gathering thousands of bottles of water to distribute at the city’s fire stations. Reeves encouraged residents with the means to buy their own bottled water to do so. “Leave these resources for those who absolutely need them,” he said of the emergency supplies.


The consequences of the facility’s problems rippled through Jackson, a city of 150,000 people, as well as Byram, a city of about 11,000 southwest of Jackson that relies on the same water system.


Public schools in Jackson switched to virtual learning, and the lack of water disrupted the operations of many businesses.


Yet the situation is exasperatingly familiar for many in Jackson, as the reliability of the city’s water system has been undermined by repeated failures in recent years. In 2021 the system was hobbled for weeks after a powerful winter storm bombarded Mississippi with snow and ice, causing pipes and water mains to burst.


The water system is, in many ways, emblematic of the broader struggles facing Jackson, which is the seat of power for the state government yet has been drained over decades of resources. The city’s tax base shrunk as white residents fled for surrounding suburbs, taking much of their wealth and tax revenue with them. In the wake of that, Jackson, which is now about 82% Black, has grappled with chronic issues with crime and faulty infrastructure, and elected officials say the Republican-controlled state Legislature has failed to invest in the city.


Some state lawmakers urged Reeves on Monday to call a special session of the Legislature with the express purpose of shoring up Jackson’s water system. Those lawmakers noted the level of support that other communities had received from the state and said they believed Jackson deserved something similar.


“The state, with unprecedented money in the bank, must step up and invest in Jackson, and save a system that serves almost one-tenth of all Mississippians,” David Blount, a Democratic state senator whose district is in the Jackson area, said in a statement, adding, “We need to act now.”

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