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Jackson, Mississippi ‘Indefinitely’ Out of Water

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In late August 2022, the city of Jackson, Mississippi ran out of water indefinitely.

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On August 30 2022, a post to Reddit’s r/news claimed that the city of Jackson, Mississippi was without water for an unknown period of time:

Jackson, Mississippi, water system is failing, city to be with no or little drinking water indefinitely from news

One day later, NBC News reporter Kat Tenbarge tweeted that Jackson not only lacked water (due to a failing water system), but that the city had run out of bottled water the day before, leaving residents in a highly precarious position:

The r/news post linked to a local news outlet (MississippiToday.com), and an August 29 2022 article about Jackson, Mississippi’s water crisis (bleakly headlined “Jackson water system is failing, city will be with no or little drinking water indefinitely”). It opened with stark uncertainty about the situation in Jackson:

The drinking water system in Jackson — Mississippi’s largest city and home to more than 160,000 residents — is failing, state officials announced on Monday [August 29 2022]. Thousands of Jackson residents already have no or little water pressure, and officials cannot say when adequate, reliable service will be restored.

The city water system has been plagued with problems for years, including tens of thousands of residents losing water between one and three weeks during a 2021 winter storm.

At a press conference Monday night [August 29 2022], Gov. Tate Reeves said the city’s largest water treatment plants may be completely down.

“The O.B. Curtis plant is not operating anywhere near full capacity,” Reeves said. “We may find out tomorrow [August 30 2022 that] it’s not operating at all. We’ll have better visibility on that when we get in there tomorrow.”

That reporting included a link to previous coverage of the lack of water in Jackson, published in March 2021. It explained that Jackson residents endured previous water service interruptions, and that the fragility of the city’s water systems was not a new development as of 2022:

Janna Avalon, a 72-year-old retired newspaper editor, lived out the mid-February [2021] ice storm and weeks-long water outage just feet from South Jackson’s empty water tower.

The one million-gallon tank, one of several across the city, is meant to store water at a high elevation, utilizing gravity to pressurize the delivery system, especially during service interruptions.

But contingency plans are a myth in a system as chronically broken as Jackson’s.

So for the better part of the last month [of February and March 2021], Avalon and her husband Billy heaved buckets of water they retrieved from government tankers, kind neighbors or rainfall into their home to flush their toilet or wash dishes.

Most Jacksonians lost running water altogether after back-to-back winter storms the week of Feb. 14 [2021] stunned unprepared utilities across the Deep South, and the Avalons were some of the roughly 43,000 people whose taps remained dry for more than two weeks. City officials were still telling most residents, 82% of whom are Black, to boil their water a month later [in March 2021].

The problems, in fact, have stretched back years:

Many Jacksonians lacked access to clean drinking water long before the [February 2021] storm. In fact, on a good day, officials advise pregnant people and children under five not to drink from the tap, a phenomenon that’s been the case for the last five years.

“And most people in Jackson don’t even know,” Laurie Bertram Roberts, a longtime reproductive rights activist in Jackson and director of Alabama-based Yellowhammer Fund, told Mississippi Today during the recent outage [in 2021]. “The city and the state have done nothing to provide water to those populations. This whole time they should have been providing water for pregnant people and children under five. This whole time.”

On August 30 2022, the Mississippi Department of Health warned residents of Jackson to boil tap water for a full minute before using it:

As for why Jackson ran out of water, an August 31 2022 Vox.com piece explained the crisis as “decades in the making,” as stories from previous years made clear:

There are two main issues affecting Jackson’s water system, according to the latest reports.

Days of torrential rain in August [2022] flooded Mississippi’s Pearl River and the Ross R. Barnett Reservoir — a 33,000-acre lake that provides water to Jackson. Before that water makes it into homes, it passes through the O.B. Curtis treatment plant.

Floodwaters often contain large amounts of contaminants from runoff that can be hard to filter and change the water’s chemistry. That can, in turn, strain treatment plants and slow down the speed at which treated water fills the city’s water towers, many of which are at extremely low levels. Without water in these towers, there’s not much water pressure to feed the city’s system.

The other problem has to do with water pumps. For weeks [in August 2022], the main pumps at the O.B. Curtis plant — the city’s largest facility — have been out of service and the plant has been relying, instead, on weaker backup pumps. Those backup pumps may have malfunctioned and were processing less water. There may have also been an issue with water pumps at a smaller plant — J.H. Fewell — which prevented this secondary plant from increasing its output to fill some of the gap in water supply.

(There’s been some disagreement among city and state officials about which water pumps have failed. This is a developing story; details of the many points of failure are still emerging.)

On the afternoon of August 31 2022, United States President Joe Biden tweeted information about a federal response to the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi. Biden indicated that three federal agencies were dispatched to distribute clean water to Jackson residents:

CNN reported around the same time that officials hoped water service would be restored in the days ahead:

As Mississippi’s capital faces a third day without reliable water service Wednesday [August 31 2022] — pushing some residents to stand in long lines for bottled water and keeping schools and businesses closed — the mayor says he hopes water service can be restored this week [of August 29 2022].

The problem came to a head Monday [August 29 2022], when river flooding nudged an already-hobbling main treatment plant to failure, meaning Jackson couldn’t necessarily produce enough water to flush toilets or even fight fires, officials say. The water system has been troubled for years and the city already was under a boil-water notice since late July [2022].

Officials “are optimistic that we can see water restored to our residents within this week [of August 29 2022]” in the city of roughly 150,000 residents, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told CNN Wednesday [August 31 2022].

“There is a huge mountain to climb in order to achieve that,” he said. Crews “are working persistently to restore the pressure, to refill the tanks across the city,” Lumumba said.

On August 30 2022, a high-ranking post on Reddit’s r/news claimed that Jackson, Mississippi was without water “indefinitely,” a news story that came to more widespread notice the following day. City and state officials confirmed that Jackson’s ongoing water crisis intensified on August 29 2022, after the failure of a fragile water treatment plant; Jackson residents more frequently endured boil water advisories, and previously lost access to water in February and March 2021. U.S. President Joe Biden dispatched federal agencies to Jackson on August 31 2022, declaring a state of emergency and sending supplies of clean water to the city’s residents.