‘Do not drink the water’: Mississippi's capital turns off its taps

Jackson, Mississippi, residents are being warned not to drink or use any water without first boiling it. Heavy rainfall has overwhelmed the plants that supply the city’s clean water, throwing longstanding maintenance issues into a national spotlight.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
A Jackson, Mississippi, firefighter hauls cases of bottled water to a local's SUV on Aug. 18, 2022, as part of the city's response to its water supply problems. Officials declared a state of emergency on Aug. 29, 2022, after rain overwhelmed a water-treatment plant.

Mississippi’s capital city is grappling with multiple water problems – too much on the ground after heavy rainfall in the past week, and not enough safe water coming through the pipes for people to use.

Parts of Jackson were without running water Tuesday because flooding exacerbated longstanding problems in one of two water-treatment plants. The city of 150,000 had already been under a boil-water notice for a month because the Health Department found cloudy water that could cause digestive problems.

“They are making it impossible for us to do business in Jackson, Mississippi,” restaurant owner Derek Emerson told The Associated Press on Tuesday. Mr. Emerson and his wife, Jennifer, own the upscale Walker’s Drive-In. He said they have been spending $300 a day for bottled water in the past month.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said late Monday that he’s declaring a state of emergency for Jackson’s water system, and he issued the proclamation Tuesday. The state will try to help resolve problems by hiring contractors to work at the treatment plant, which was operating at diminished capacity with backup pumps after the main pumps failed “some time ago,” Governor Reeves said.

And President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration request for the state of Mississippi, directing his administration to surge federal assistance to the region, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tweeted late Tuesday.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said Jackson’s water system is troubled by short staffing and “decades of deferred maintenance.” He said the influx of water from torrential rain changed the chemical composition needed for treatment, which slowed the process of pushing water out to customers.

Mr. Lumumba is a Democrat and was not invited to the Republican governor’s Monday night news conference – another indication of tension between two politicians who are often at odds.

Like many cities, Jackson faces more water system problems that it can afford to fix. Its tax base has eroded the past few decades as the population decreased – the result of mostly white flight to suburbs that began after public schools integrated in 1970. The city’s population is now more than 80% Black, with about 25% of its residents living in poverty.

Low water pressure left some people unable to take showers or flush toilets and officials said the low pressure caused concern for firefighting. Those who did have water flowing from the tap were told to boil it to kill bacteria that could make them sick.

“The water is not safe to drink, and I’d even say it’s not safe to brush your teeth with,” the state health officer, Dr. Dan Edney, said Monday.

Governor Reeves said the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency will start distributing both drinking water and non-potable water, and he activated the National Guard to help.

Jackson schools held classes online Tuesday and Wednesday, and some restaurants closed. Jackson State University brought in temporary restrooms for students, and Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders said the water crisis left his players without air conditioning or ice at their practice facility. In a video that one of his sons posted to social media, Sanders – also known as Coach Prime – said he wanted to move players into a hotel so they could shower.

“We’re going to find somewhere to practice, find somewhere that can accommodate every durn thing that we need and desire to be who we desire to be, and that’s dominate,” Mr. Sanders said. “The devil is a lie. He ain’t going to get us today, baby.”

The problems at the water treatment plant came after the city appeared to largely avoid widespread flooding from a Pearl River swollen by days of heavy rain. One home was flooded Monday but the mayor said the water did not rise as high as expected. Earlier projections showed about 100 to 150 buildings in the Jackson area faced the possibility of flooding.

The National Weather Service said the Pearl River crested Monday at about 35.4 feet. That is short of the major flood stage level of 36 feet. Parts of Jackson flooded in 2020 after the river rose above that level.

Jackson has two water-treatment plants, and the larger one is near a reservoir that provides most of the city’s water supply. The reservoir also has a role in flood control.

The mayor said low water pressure could last a few days.

“What I liken it to is if you were drinking out of a Styrofoam cup, someone puts a hole in the bottom of it, you’re steady trying to fill it while it’s steady running out at the bottom,” Mr. Lumumba said.

Jackson has longstanding problems with its water system. A cold snap in 2021 left a significant number of people without running water after pipes froze. Similar problems happened again early this year, on a smaller scale.

Mr. Lumumba said last week that fixing Jackson’s water system could cost $200 million. That is more than two times the $75 million the whole state is receiving to address water problems as part of a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Jackson resident Bernard Smith said he filled containers with water Monday night in case his home lost service. He bought bottled water Tuesday and said he hopes Jackson is on track to solve its water woes.

“Sometimes you’ve to go through the hardship to get back to the good ship," Mr. Smith said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Zeke Miller contributed from aboard Air Force One.

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