Jackson Water Crisis Highlights Race, Disinvestment & Poor Oversight

Jonathan Chng, Upsplash

Here in this planet’s wealthiest nation, more than 150,000 people lack safe drinking water in a state capital. Porta potties grace the state capitol’s grounds due to the lack of water in the building. Federal, state, and local officials are announcing action plans, distributing bottled water, and wringing their hands about this latest water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi. But it was entirely predictable, and indeed, was predicted.

As I blogged in March of 2021, Jackson’s water problems—including repeated boil water orders affecting some or all of the city—are a long-standing issue. The city has suffered from dozens of health standard violations for microbial risks, lead, and other problems, all of which foreshadowed the current disaster.

What’s happening in Jackson is illustrative of a widespread problem with America’s drinking water infrastructure. The problems boil down to three issues: (1) the legacy of racist policies coming home to roost, often resulting in the loss of wealthier and white populations in city cores, leaving the population to become mostly Black and often low-income; (2) the underinvestment in drinking water infrastructure and skilled staffing, especially in low-income and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities; and (3) weak and inequitable state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implementation and enforcement of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

In 1980, Jackson was a mostly white city of more than 200,000 people. White flight resulted in the city’s population shrinking to about 150,000 people today. The city is now about 82 percent Black, and a quarter of the city residents are living below the poverty line. The history of racism in Mississippi is well documented, but of course this scourge is in no way limited to that state. The clear and lingering impacts of former redlining, school segregation, and other racist policies continue to reverberate, resulting in a city with low average income and underinvestment in Jackson’s infrastructure. This has been exacerbated, according to media accounts, by the reluctance or outright opposition of the mostly white Mississippi state legislature and current and past white governors to provide adequate funding to address Jackson’s increasingly urgent drinking water infrastructure needs.

Jackson and Mississippi are not alone in having disproportionate drinking water problems in communities of color. According to a landmark 2020 study by NRDC, Coming Clean, and Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform entitled Watered Down Justice, drinking water violations and inadequate government response to violations disproportionately occur in low-income and BIPOC communities. We all remember the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, which told a similar story. What was once an economically thriving, mostly white city was devastated by economic downturns, lost its population and wealth, and became mostly Black. Flint suffered from a serious water crisis triggered by shortsighted and racist state actions. Flint also was harmed by underinvestment in water infrastructure and poor state agency in addition to EPA oversight and enforcement. The lead in water crises in other majority-Black and mostly low-income towns—including Newark, New Jersey, and Benton Harbor, Michigan—are additional examples.

According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, many large and mid-size cities that have lost population often have lower median incomes and face major challenges with investment in water infrastructure. It is not a stretch to suggest that the deteriorating and underfunded drinking water infrastructure in many of these and other cities also are ticking time bombs, ready to explode when their problems manifest themselves.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law enacted last November (formally known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) could start the process of reversing the problem in Jackson and many other cities and towns. But this will happen only if states like Mississippi and EPA properly implement that law, provide additional funding on top of that provided in the new infrastructure law, and take their responsibilities under the Safe Drinking Water Act far more seriously.

Jackson has a large population of low-income people yet it has suggested that it will increase its water rates 40 percent this year. There is an urgent need for additional state and federal funding and water affordability rate structures and programs to enable low-income people to afford their water bills.

The response of Governor Tate Reeves, the state legislature, and Mississippi’s Department of Health to funding adequate responses to Jackson’s hemorrhaging water system has not been promising to date. Although there have been public promises and reported allocations in the past of limited state funding for Jackson, it has been far from sufficient to address the massive magnitude of the problem. Thus, while media reports say a total of about $36 million in loans has been approved in the past for Jackson from the federally-supported state revolving fund, the state’s 2022 plan for spending federal drinking water infrastructure funds, called the Intended Use Plan, does not appear to include any funding to fix Jackson’s drinking water infrastructure disaster. We must assume that this will change with all the public attention given to the issue and the massive new funding being provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. There is also federal American Rescue Plan Act funding that could be made available. However, the funding to date has represented a tiny fraction of the projected $1 billion or more that’s needed for Jackson’s water infrastructure.

Jackson needs and deserves a far more robust ongoing state response and funding, as well as direct federal financial and technical assistance and stronger, more effective local action. Many options for fixing the management and oversight of the city’s water supply have been suggested; whatever option is selected, local residents must have a major voice in the decision and in how their water system is operated. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, EPA, Army Corps of Engineers and state officials have all now been working recently in Jackson to begin to address the problem. But much more funding, ongoing technical help, more effective state and federal intervention, and improved local management of the water system over the long term will be crucial to resolving the city’s water woes.

About the Authors

Erik D. Olson

Senior Strategic Director, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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