What Went Wrong With Jackson, Mississippi’s Water?

5:31 minutes

close up of rows of blue plastic water bottles with dark blue caps, all closed
Rows of water bottles isolated on white background

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. 

Residents of Jackson, Mississippi have been dealing with a water crisis since a storm rolled through town on February 15th. The city’s water system was damaged, leaving thousands of residents without running water at home. People have relied on water distribution sites to get by, and even those who can still use their taps are on boil water notice. Impacted residents are largely low-income, and the limited access to water has raised worries about staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Even before this fiasco, Jackson’s water system was in need of a change. Boil water advisories were common, and many of the city’s pipes date back to the 1950s. Water service is expected to be restored this week, but getting the taps running again will just be a Band-Aid: A true overhaul would require millions, if not billions of dollars. Mississippi Public Broadcasting reporter Kobee Vance joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss what’s happening in Jackson, and why its infrastructure was particularly vulnerable to this crisis.

Further Reading

  • Read more about Mississippi’s infrastructure problems.
  • Check out an infographic of the age of U.S. water pipes.
  • Learn more about how Mississippi’s water crisis is affecting low-income areas.

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Segment Guests

Kobee Vance

Kobee Vance is a Reporter at Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson, Mississippi.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky and it’s time to check in on the state of science.

Local science stories of national significance. Jackson, Mississippi has been dealing with a water crisis for the past month. In mid-February, a winter storm blew through the state and Jackson’s water infrastructure was not prepared for the frozen temperatures. Thousands of residents were without water for weeks.

Now the end is in sight, the city says it should restore the remaining lines this weekend. But how did this happen and how does Jackson keep it from happening again? Here with us to shed more light on the situation is Kobee Vance. He’s a reporter for Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson, Mississippi. Kobee welcome to Science Friday. Thanks for joining us.

KOBEE VANCE: I’m glad to be here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let’s talk first about why Jackson was so devastated by last month’s storm. What’s the water infrastructure like in the city?

KOBEE VANCE: This is a city where things like boil water notices are really common. For one, in January, there were about 40 boil water notices issued in the city alone. So the city has problems that have existed for decades. Looking back, there are pipes in the city that have been in the grounds for possibly a hundred years.

They’re made of cast iron and the mayor is describing them as peanut brittle. When repair crews go out to try to take them out of the ground, patch holes, their hands might go right through them, and then as they finish repairing a pipe, they may look down the street and see another break. And so the city has been dealing with this for decades. And it has become a problem that has exceeded what they can do within just one administration.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Wow. That sounds really bad. So what exactly happened then to this really old brittle infrastructure during the storm?

KOBEE VANCE: Well, starting on Valentine’s Day Mississippi had a winter storm that swept across the state. It also impacted Texas, which led to many power outages. But here in Mississippi, while power was still relatively fine, water in Jackson was hit hard. Monday morning the roads were frozen over, pretty much halting interstate traffic throughout the state.

And now that prevented delivery trucks from getting to Jackson, that had chemicals that were needed to be used in the plants for treating water. Then the water intakes from the reservoir and the Pearl River froze, and that limited water intake as well from the city.

And so as residents began to continue to use water in their homes, because everybody’s home and they can’t leave, water storage in the water towers and the other storage tanks around the city, began to drain. And so eventually, you had a complete loss of water pressure across the entire city. Some residents may have had like a trickle of water, but many had none.

And so boil water notice were issued at that time and we’re going on our fourth week now. Some residents still don’t have water.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Kobee, it’s my understanding that Jackson has one of the fastest shrinking city populations in the entire country. Is part of the issue here just disinvestment in the city?

KOBEE VANCE: A lot of it has to do with white flight. In the 80s, around half of the residents in Jackson were white. And then since then, it’s dropped to about 16%. And in a state that has a storied history with racism, it’s no surprise to hear that politicians lost interest in the city as soon as the white residents began to leave.

And so since then, funding for the city has begun to plummet. Neglect has just been growing and growing and growing over the past few years.

JOHN DANKOSKY: The remaining residents who still don’t have water are expected to get it back sometime soon. But is this going to be a real fix to this long term problem?

KOBEE VANCE: The city has requested $47 million from the state legislature but that might not be enough to fix all of the problems in the water system. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba says that the city has so many problems it would take $2 billion to accomplish all the goals the city needs to make, and that’s including roads, transportation, other infrastructure, including water.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So let’s talk quickly about how people have been getting by these last few weeks. How they’ve been getting water?

KOBEE VANCE: Well, thankfully, the National Guard was deployed and they began to use water tankers to help provide non potable water. The city has provided bottled water at several locations periodically. Sadly, I don’t think it’s been every single day. But they’ve been trying to keep residents at least some supply of bottled water that they can use.

A lot of residents are spending their own money to be able to just go to a local grocery store to buy some now. And also as the city begins to continue to build up water pressure again, they are getting water back to the residents that are furthest from the treatment plants. And so as all these are happening, bottled water is still the largest need in the city right now and thankfully, it looks like residents are getting what they need as of now.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Of course, all of this is happening in the middle of a pandemic too. Are people worried that the crisis is going to lead to a spike in cases?

KOBEE VANCE: Absolutely. The city leaders, the mayor, health officials in the area, they’re all concerned. Because you can’t wash your hands, you can’t shower, you can’t do basic things. You can’t wash your clothes for many residents. If you wouldn’t want to drink the water, would you want to wash your hands with it? And if you can’t drink the water, would you want to shower in it?

And so that’s become a major issue, is just people finding ways to stay healthy. The National Guard was handing out large bottles of hand sanitizer at the beginning, but those supplies were limited. And so now residents are just trying to find ways to protect themselves the best they can.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Kobee Vance is a reporter for Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson, Mississippi. He’s been covering this water crisis. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

KOBEE VANCE: Thank you all for having me.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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