Jackson, Mississippi, has been experiencing a water crisis this week, leaving the city’s predominantly Black population without enough water pressure to reliably flush toilets or put out fires. As a result, schools have been forced to switch to online education, and bottled water has been widely distributed.
Jackson’s aging water system has been plagued by decades of underinvestment and poor maintenance, leading to a boil water advisory for the city’s roughly 150,000 people even before the weekend’s torrential rainfall and river floods overwhelmed the system.
But it also portends what could soon happen in other U.S. cities, as climate change’s growing impacts drive under-resourced and overworked water systems to the brink.
Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer at Purdue University who has advised utilities and the U.S. Army on water safety issues, has remarked, “Every public drinking water system in the country is vulnerable to a natural disaster.” But many people aren’t ready to respond the way they’ll have to.
Generations-old sewers are often overrun by stronger storms. Extreme heat and extended drought can lead to algae blooms and sediment buildup, which can poison reservoirs. As the oceans rise, saltwater can seep into underground water supplies and overwhelm septic systems. After wildfires have damaged water pipes and spread chemical contamination, it may take weeks or months before the water is safe to drink again.
However, experts warn that places like Jackson, which are low-income communities of color with aging and deteriorating water infrastructure, are most at risk. In 2019, researchers found that Black, Latinx, Native American, and Alaska Native households are disproportionately likely to be “plumbing poor.”
Infrastructure management in the United States, according to public policy expert and senior scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Andre Perry, is a “perfect example” of structural racism. As he elaborated, he said that segregated water systems “actually establish the framework for racial inequities.” And the damage caused by climate change is only growing.
Despite the fact that Jackson has had water quality issues for decades and that state and municipal officials have been at odds over who is to blame, the current emergency was triggered by a month of record rainfall.
The Pearl River rose past flood stage and overflowed onto the streets as a result of a massive, slow-moving storm. The city’s principal water treatment plant was overwhelmed by the downpour and subsequent flooding; pump failures worsened the damage, and now the city is unable to deliver a reliable supply of clean water.
Whelton added that a decline in water pressure, as seen in Jackson, makes it easier for contaminants to enter the system. Infected floodwaters leak through broken pipes. Chemical spills and soil contamination pose a threat to water quality. It’s much simpler for contaminants to seep into a community’s water supply if that infrastructure is old, corroded, or exposed to the elements.
Whelton claimed that pressure dropped so low in Jackson’s system (which has 1,500 miles of water mains) that water became not only undrinkable but also inaccessible to the further reaches of the pipes.
The loss of authority over your water system is total, he warned.
The outcome has shocked people outside of Mississippi, but not those who are familiar with the weaknesses of Jackson’s government.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba remarked at a press conference on Tuesday, “I have said on several times that it’s not an issue of if our system will fall, but a matter of when our system would fail.”