The governor of Mississippi has called a state of emergency as over 100,000 residents of Jackson are living without reliable drinking water or running water. The governor called the emergency over the “failure of our state capital’s water system.”
Residents of Jackson have been following an emergency order from the state’s department of health which warned residents that the water was no longer safe to drink. The turbidity level, a measure of the water’s suspended matter, indicated that it was harboring disease-causing organisms.
Governor Tate Reeves, who held an emergency press conference Monday evening, said that “Jackson’s main water treatment facility has been operating with zero redundancies,” and that damage to the main pump had left the city operating far weaker backup pumps.
Experts warned that the likelihood of the system reaching a point of complete failure was all but certain. Consultations with the experts revealed that the timeline for repairs couldn’t be reliably estimated. Reeves’ administration set about determining how to supply water to 180,000 people for an indefinite period. The administration banked on using the treatment facility to its limit in order to buy time.
“All of this was with the prayer that we would have more time before their system ran to failure. Unfortunately, that failure appears to have begun today,” Governor Reeves said.
Democrat Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a former activist, has been plagued by water issues since taking office. He claims this recent saga is the product of bad timing. That and the combination of heavy rains and river flooding overburdened what he has described as an underfunded public system.
When the water crisis was initially declared in July, Mayor Lumumba was against the suggestions of the state agency which declared the water unsafe to drink unless boiled.
According to Lumumba, the water treatment facilities of Jackson had undergone a transition from using soda ash to lime slurry as their primary cleaning agent. He assured residents that the water was perfectly safe to drink. In 2018, a winter cold front saw water mains throughout the city burst. Due to the water shortage public schools shuttered their doors for days. This is while water pressure left the city unable to supply water to its 27,000 students.
In 2019, a $7 million emergency loan was passed by the city council to stabilize the system. Two similar incidents followed in February 2021. Then, this February, the EPA notified the mayor that the city was noncompliant with federal clean water regulations after it failed to repair damaged parts from the 2021 incident, and the ongoing low pressure carried a significant risk of contamination.
Lumumba implied that the notice to boil water issued by the department of health was a product of regulatory red tape, despite federal agencies saying the same thing. The Mayor claims the agency was required to issue the warning due to the level of particles clouding the water. According to Lumumba, the particles were harmless minerals from the treatment process.
“Even among the discussion amongst the higher-ups, you know, they’re not necessarily taking the position that they do think that it’s a public health threat, but they do recognize that they are a regulatory agency, and limitations to even what they can do,” he said.
A spokesperson for the department of health pushed back on the mayor’s claims in an email to local NBC affiliate WLBT.
“This agency does not issue boil water notices if the water is safe to drink,” said Liz Sharlot, the Mississippi State Department of Health communications director. “Our goal will always be to protect the public health of our citizens.”