Jackson water crisis forces residents to find alternatives


JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The water pressure at James Brown’s home in Jackson was so low the faucets barely dripped. He couldn’t cook. He couldn’t bathe. But he still had to work.

The 73-year-old tree-cutter hauled bags of ice into his truck at a gas station on his way to a job Wednesday after several days without water.

“What can I do? I’m just a pawn in a chess game,” he said during one of multiple trips to and from the store. “All I’ve got to do is just try and live.”

People waited in lines for water to drink, bathe, cook and flush toilets Wednesday in Mississippi's capital. The city water system partially failed early this week after Pearl River flooding exacerbated longstanding problems in one of two water-treatment plants.

Mayor Chokwe 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.

A city news release said the main water-treatment plant had “challenges with water chemistry” Wednesday, which led to a drop in the output of water. That caused the depletion of water tanks and a sharp decrease in water pressure.

Even before the service disruption, Jackson's 150,000 residents had been boiling their drinking water for the past month because officials said it could cause digestive problems.

Brown said Wednesday that he’d stopped at the grocery store to buy four cases of water before picking up the ice. A lifelong Jackson resident, he said people there have been living without access to consistent water for years — even when there is pressure, residents often have to boil it to drink and cook.

A cold snap in 2021 left tens of thousands of people without running water after pipes froze. Similar problems happened again early this year, on a smaller scale.

“It will get right one day,” Brown said. “When, I have no idea.”

Like many cities, Jackson faces water system problems it can’t afford to fix. Its tax base has eroded over the past few decades as the population decreased, and about 25% of its residents live in poverty.

Lumumba said Tuesday that fixing Jackson’s water system could run to “quite possibly the billions of dollars.” Mississippi is receiving $75 million to address water problems as part of a bipartisan infrastructure bill. Jackson is receiving about $31 million through the EPA's revolving loan funds for treatment and distribution system improvements.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency for Jackson’s water system Tuesday. The state will try to help resolve problems by hiring contractors to work at the O.B. Curtis water treatment plant — the facility at the root of Jackson’s water woes. The plant was operating at diminished capacity with backup pumps after the main pumps failed “some time ago,” Reeves said.

In a video posted to Twitter, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said an emergency rental pump had been installed Wednesday at the O.B. Curtis. Broken pumps at the plant resulted in decreased water pressure and some outages.

In a news conference Wednesday, Lumumba said city officials expected water pressure to start increasing later in the evening.

Bobbie Fairley, who has lived in Jackson her entire life, owns Magic Hands Hair design in south Jackson. The 59-year-old said she had to cancel five appointments Wednesday because she needs high water pressure to wash chemicals out of customers' hair during treatments.

She has had to purchase water to shampoo hair to try to fit in whatever appointments she can. When clients aren’t coming in, she’s losing money.

“That’s a big burden,” she said. “I can’t afford that. I can’t afford that at all.”

Jackson State University had to bring in temporary restrooms for students and was waiting on the delivery of portable showers Wednesday, President Thomas Hudson said.

Hudson said the city's water issues have been an ongoing challenge for the historically Black university as it has worked to attract students.

“It does make it difficult in terms of what we're trying to do, our core mission, which is education,” Hudson said.

He said the university is starting work on a plan for a standalone water supply system using some of the federal funding made available to historically Black colleges and universities.

Shannon Wilson, whose daughter just started her sophomore year at Jackson State, said her daughter's dorm regained some pressure, but the water coming out is brown. Her daughter left to stay with a friend off campus. But Wilson, who lives in St. Louis, can't help but worry about her.

“We are feeling helpless," Wilson said. “Being over 500 miles away from Jackson, there is nothing I can do but worry."