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A look at the ongoing Jackson water...

A look at the ongoing Jackson water troubles

By: Anne Summerhays - February 15, 2023

This is an aerial view of of the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Plant, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The State intervened last year which then led to the Feds stepping in. Now the Legislature is considering options.

The capital city of Jackson, Mississippi has experienced ongoing water infrastructure troubles for many years.

The municipal water system had been subject to the management and operation of the City itself, as are most water systems in Mississippi. However, local oversight, maintenance and investment has lacked resulting in a crisis last fall which caused the State of Mississippi to step in.

Mississippi Intervenes

On August 30, 2022, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves issued a State of Emergency regarding the ongoing Jackson water crisis stemming from failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. That declaration expired on November 22, 2022. 

Governor Reeves activated the Mississippi National Guard to support state assistance to the City of Jackson and surrounding areas. The Mississippi State Department of Health had also issued a State of Emergency of its own. 

The state officials believed that total or near total loss of water pressure throughout the City of Jackson and surrounding areas of Hinds County that receive water from the plant created a condition of disaster and extreme peril to the safety of persons and property. 

The pressure issues meant that Jackson was unable to produce enough water to flush toilets, fight fires, and meet other critical needs. In addition, roughly 160,000 residents were impacted with undrinkable water.

On September 15th, Governor Reeves announced that clean water had been restored to the City of Jackson and the boil water advisory for the city and surrounding areas was lifted.

The Executive Order noted “in less than 72 hours after the emergency was declared, water pressure was returned to the City of Jackson, and in less than 15 days the boil water alert was lifted.”

Feds Enter the Picture

At the end of November, a proposal was filed by the United States in federal court that if approved by the court, an interim Third-Party Manager would be appointed to stabilize the city of Jackson’s public drinking water system. Attorney General Merrick Garland later appointed Ted Henifin as that third-party administrator to run the City of Jackson’s water system.

“If you haven’t recognized, this is a huge, huge task,” Henifin said in December. “But I believe we have all the tools, people, expertise and federal support that we are going to need funding-wise to make a difference.”

According to the City of Jackson, Henifin is tasked with the following:

  • Ensuring the water system is in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
  • Managing the City’s Water/Sewer Business Administration.
  • Implementing capital improvements, in particular, a set of priority projects to improve the system’s near-term stability.
  • Correcting conditions that present, or may present, an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of the city’s residents.
  • Overseeing ways to generate revenue; considering equitable payment structures to ensure water bills are affordable.

Earlier this month, Henifin released a 30-page plan to fix the decades of mismanagement of the water system.

Henifin said through the efforts of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba and advocates for the City across all levels of government, business, non-profits, foundations, and community organizations, significant funding has been provided to Jackson to get the water system infrastructure back to a stable and reliable condition.

“This plan has been developed with a focus on getting the system onto a path to sustainable, affordable operation that can reliably provide safe drinking water to all current users of the system,” Henifin said. “Keeping the system operated and maintained to provide reliable and safe water, will require on-going regular investments funded by the residents of Jackson through a local revenue stream generated by the system’s customers.”

In the plan, the third-party administrator suggests billing individuals and businesses for water based on the value of their property, with a cap rate of $150 per month for residential property owners and $600 per month for businesses.

However, a bill in the Mississippi Legislature counters this billing model.

Legislature Proposes Parameters

Passed by the House last week, H.B. 698 would require municipalities to bill water and sewer based on usage. A similar measure, S.B. 2338, passed the Mississippi Senate and has been referred to the House Public Works Committee.

“The rates at which water, wastewater, and sewer services shall be supplied shall be just and reasonable, and rates may not be unreasonably preferential, prejudicial or discriminatory but shall be sufficient, equitable and consistent in application to each class of inhabitants,” the bill states. “Rates shall be calculated in equitable proportion to the services and benefits rendered. Except as provided in Section 21-27-77, the calculation of an inhabitant’s bill shall be limited to the actual amount of usage, plus those fees reasonable and necessary for the cost of capital expenses, system operation and maintenance, and debt service.”

The Mississippi Senate also passed a piece of legislation, SB 2889, that would create a regional utility authority to oversee Jackson’s water system. The authority would be responsible for setting water rates and making improvements to the city’s infrastructure which includes water, sewer and storm drains.

The bill provides for an appointed nine-member board to oversee the city’s water system.

The Mayor of Jackson would have four appointees, the Governor would appoint three members, and the Lt. Governor would appoint two.

Local officials are unhappy with both pieces of legislation.

Jackson Looks to Hire New Public Works Director

Additionally, Jackson City Engineer Robert Lee was named interim director of the Jackson Public Works Department last week. The city has started a nationwide search to find a permanent candidate for the position.

“This is a big responsibility in our city given our challenges, and the city is grateful for Mr. Lee’s interest in taking on the job,” Mayor Lumumba said in a statement. “I have full trust in his decision-making, knowledge and skills moving forward.”

The department had been without a director for months.

Significant Funding On The Table

In Henifin’s plan, he said a significant amount of Federal grant funding has been provided to the City over the past few months.

“These sources combine for more than $814 million dollars available to address the system’s infrastructure and other needs,” Henifin said. “Each of these funding streams comes with restrictions on the permitted uses. Furthermore, not all of these funds are available immediately. The Financial Management Plan incorporates the use of these funds and the permitted uses, as the funds become available.”

He noted there are tremendous capital needs to make the water system safe, reliable, and sustainable. 

“The Order includes 13 priority projects. These are in addition to other needs already identified during the ARPA process, with the currently open SRF Loan, and with the USCOE 219 funding,” the plan states. “Distribution system improvements remain largely undefined pending a modeled analysis of the system, with the exception of the replacement of the 109 miles of small pipes (4 inches and less) throughout the system.”

Read Henifin’s full plan here.

About the Author(s)
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Anne Summerhays

Anne Summerhays is a recent graduate of Millsaps College where she majored in Political Science, with minors in Sociology and American Studies. In 2021, she joined Y’all Politics as a Capitol Correspondent. Prior to making that move, she interned for a congressional office in Washington, D.C. and a multi-state government relations and public affairs firm in Jackson, Mississippi. While at Millsaps, Summerhays received a Legislative Fellowship with the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi where she worked with an active member of the Mississippi Legislature for the length of session. She has quickly established trust in the Capitol as a fair, honest, and hardworking young reporter. Her background in political science helps her cut through the noise to find and explain the truth. Email Anne: