As a water crisis persists in Jackson, Mississippi, where residents’ faucets are receiving brown water or nothing at all, authorities are scrambling to bring a failing water treatment plant plagued by issues from decades of deferred maintenance back online.
The crisis has upended life in the city of about 150,000 people, forcing schools to close, businesses to adapt, and residents to queue for bottled water to cook with or brush their teeth.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told CNN on Wednesday that he believes water will be restored to residents this week. “But there is a huge mountain to climb to get there,” he added.
The city’s already deteriorating main treatment plant, the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, was pushed to failure by recent torrential rains and river flooding, rendering it unable to consistently pump out clean water.
A rental pump was installed at the facility on Wednesday, which authorities believe will help add an additional 4 million gallons of water per day to the system. The state also hired outside contractors to start work on critical emergency repairs.
While operators rush to address water pressure issues, a water quality issue persists. Since late July, the city has been under a boil-water advisory.
While authorities rush to make repairs, bring in needed parts, and deal with staffing shortages at Jackson’s water plants, residents’ daily lives are being disrupted.
They are seeing cloudy, discolored water coming from their faucets and are being told that it is safe to drink. They can’t drink it, cook with it, or wash their dishes in it, but they can shower and wash their hands in it, according to officials.
“Please make sure your mouth is not open in the shower,” Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of health protection at the Mississippi Department of Health, told residents on Wednesday, adding that pets should not drink the water.
According to the mayor, it is unclear when residents will no longer need to boil water, and this cannot be determined until water pressure returns to normal.
Meanwhile, all Jackson public schools switched to virtual learning on Tuesday. This week, Jackson State University also implemented online classes and installed portable showers and toilets throughout campus.
Kehinde Gaynor, a father of five, said his family has been frustrated by the current water shortage.
President Joe Biden has approved a declaration of emergency for Jackson, which Reeves says will allow Mississippi to access critical resources to respond to the crisis.
Authorities anticipated that the aging water treatment plant would fail soon. Reeves said this week that the main pumps at O.B. Curtis were severely damaged earlier this summer and were replaced with smaller backup pumps.
While the temporary pump was installed on Wednesday, there are still significant mechanical and electrical issues due to deferred maintenance, including various pumps and motors that must be replaced and sludge in basins that has accumulated to levels that are “not acceptable,” according to Craig.
There is also the problem of flooding. Recent heavy rainfall impacted reservoir intake water, causing a chemical imbalance on the plant’s conventional treatment side, Craig said Wednesday. This impacted particulate removal, resulting in a temporary shutdown of that side of the plant and a loss of water distribution pressure.
This came after the Jackson water system failed an Environmental Protection Agency inspection in early 2020, which discovered that the drinking water could be a breeding ground for harmful bacteria or parasites.
The EPA and the city agreed in July 2021 to address “long-term challenges and make needed improvements to the drinking water system.” Mississippi will also receive $74.9 million in federal water and sewer infrastructure funds, according to the EPA.
Systemic and environmental racism, advocates have previously stated, are among the causes of Jackson’s ongoing water issues and lack of resources to address them. According to census data, approximately 82.5% of Jackson’s population identifies as Black or African American, while the state legislature is predominantly White.