Jackson’s water system could require billions of dollars in repairs. Federal infrastructure funds are not a quick fix.

JACKSON, Mississippi — Residents of the Mississippi capital — who currently don’t have clean drinking water from their tap and in some neighborhoods don’t have enough water pressure to flush toilets — had good reason to hope the ambitious $1 trillion Last year’s infrastructure contract would help.

President Joe Biden shared the city’s struggles in promoting the August 2021 infrastructure bill, saying, “We can never again allow what happened in Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi.”

In a state where financial fortunes are rare, the federal package could be transformative for Jackson, who desperately needs funds to repair a brittle system where sewer lines frequently rupture and residents regularly experience outages and notices to boil their water. Mississippi is expected to receive $429 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to repair its water and sewage systems over the next five years, primarily through loans, some of which are forgivable, and grants funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to be provided.

However, with the city remaining under a state of emergency, it could be a long wait for some of those funds — and a battle for the city’s share. One of two state agencies responsible for providing millions of dollars in federal infrastructure funding said it could be at least mid to late 2023 before allocations are made. And Jackson won’t be the only one coming to the table; The money will reach communities across the state.

Even if the state gave Jackson all the funds Mississippi should receive, that wouldn’t be enough. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, said the price of overhauling the city’s water infrastructure could be in the billions. This far exceeds the funds allocated by the Infrastructure Act.

“We’re already in a life-or-death crisis,” said Danyelle Holmes, a Jackson resident who helps distribute water to the city and works as a national social justice organizer at Repairers of the Breach, which mobilizes voters and low-income earners the campaign of the poor. “Due to the water crisis, lives have been put at risk on a daily basis and pushing this another year to 2023 just won’t work for the citizens of Jackson, especially when we talk about humanity and preserving life.”

No deaths related to the water outage have been reported as of Friday, but health advocates have raised concerns about the vulnerability of dialysis patients who need access to clean water for treatment.

There is a repair funding mechanism that could reach Jackson sooner. This year, the Mississippi Legislature launched a $450 million program to fund water infrastructure using money the state received through the Congressional Covid Relief Package passed in 2021. However, the plan requires cities and counties to put up dollars to match, and Jackson only has about $25 million in funds to commit in the American Rescue Plan Act, according to State Senator John Horhn. Applications for the program opened Thursday, and some of that money could be awarded by the end of the year.

Ty Carter fills jugs with non-potable water at Forest Hill High School in Jackson, Mississippi, with Garrett Enterprises on Wednesday.Brad Vest/Getty Images

Infrastructure in the Mississippi capital has been likened to “peanut brittle,” prone to water mains, constant service disruptions and sewage spills on residential streets. Some pipes in the system were installed before the Great Depression. There’s also a history of deferred maintenance, culminating in repair costs that dwarfed the city’s entire budget.

The consequences of the maintenance failure were acute. References to boiling water are common in Jackson, and local residents’ concerns about contaminants slipping through remain. In 2016, routine tests found elevated levels of lead, leading state health officials to warn pregnant people and young children not to drink the city’s water, a recommendation that has remained in effect since last year.

Even if there is no advice, some locals avoid drinking from the tap. That means paying a bill every month for a service they can’t fully use and also at the grocery store for cases of bottled water. Wallets took an even bigger hit in February 2021, when many residents were without access to running water for a month after machinery was frozen by a cold snap. Some locals have been unable to work as shops have closed.

Attempts to solve the problems have been hampered by insufficient city-level revenue after decades of population decline. There has also been a lack of aggressive investment by the state legislature, which for many black Jacksonians is a painful modern reflection of Mississippi’s long troubled history with races: Jackson is a majority-black city with Democratic leadership, while the statehouse has been in recent memory Sessions dominated by mostly white male Republican leaders. And even though Mississippi has the largest percentage of black residents in the state, all of the state’s elected officials are white.

Lumumba said he was not in a position to refuse state aid, but noted earlier in the week that the city had “gone it alone” in recent years. Members of the city’s legislative delegation last year tried to get the city an additional $42 million from the state, but failed; the bill that contained the funds died in committee.

State Rep. Shanda Yates, an independent living in Jackson who led the effort, said a $42 million direct grant from the Legislature would likely have flowed to the city sooner than the American Rescue Plan’s equivalent grant program, that is just beginning on the way.

A direct assignment to the city from the Legislature, she explained, might have meant the city could start some work “sooner rather than later.”

“Maybe we could have started doing that already,” she said of the repair work that the money would have covered.

Some residents have long argued that racial inequality in state representation is why the city’s crisis has been allowed to smolder without significant financial support from the legislature.

“What’s really sad is that we have the resources and the technology to prevent this type of disaster,” Holmes said. “The failure to prevent such a catastrophe is a direct failure of governance.”

While the relationship between city and state leaders has been troubled in recent years, more recently Lumumba and Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, have put forward a united front. On Thursday, the two made their first appearances at the same press conference on the current water crisis.

A spokesman for Reeves did not respond to requests for comment; a spokesman for Lumumba did not comment.

As many across the country prepare for an extended Labor Day weekend, Jackson continues to suffer from a water outage. At times, tens of thousands of residents across the city had little to no running water. Locals were already grappling with a boiling water warning in place since July 29 and preparing for possible flooding after days of heavy rain when the latest crisis hit.

On August 29, Jacksonians had breathed little relief after learning that the city would likely be spared severe flooding when Reeves announced that the capital’s water system was on the verge of collapse.

City officials said the flood affected the operation of one of its water treatment plants, adding to the disruption. An emergency rental pump was introduced to increase performance.

Some of the longer-term solutions previously mentioned by city officials could involve replacing water lines across the capital at a cost of over $11 million. Before the recent outage, repairs to water treatment plants were expected to be worth over $35.6 million. And fixing some problems in the city’s sewage system is estimated at $30 million.

The $429 million Mississippi will receive from the federal infrastructure bill over the next five years will flow primarily through two agencies.

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality administers the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program. (Revolving fund programs recycle money repaid from past borrowers to future borrowers and help cities and counties that may not have enough income from their tax base to pay for repairs.) The agency initially received about $17 million and said, she expects to start allocating funds in the second half of 2023.

Though the money hasn’t been disbursed yet, Jan Schaefer, a spokeswoman for the agency, said Jackson was recently awarded about $31.7 million for a project involving its sewage system from a previous round of federal funding. The city has also completed the initial planning needed to receive an additional $163 million in funding from the state’s revolving credit programs, it said in a statement, but has not yet submitted any applications.

Once the necessary paperwork is complete, she said, the projects could be “probably funded for the next few years.”

Another portion of the infrastructure money goes to the State Department of Health’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. According to Les Herrington of the agency’s Office of Environmental Health, that fund already has more than $19 million from the law that it has begun folding into planned allocations. The agency did not immediately share details of its timeline for awarding additional funds.

In fiscal 2021, $27 million in revolving loans from the federally-backed drinking water fund were made to Jackson to improve treatment facilities, but no new applications have been made since last year, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

As the process of disbursing federal funds continues, residents continue to wait in water supply lines that stretch for a mile for basic supplies. A final date for the service to be restored was not given.

As of Friday morning, the city said water pressure is improving but is not yet up to ideal standards.

Sam Mozee, director of the Mississippi Urban Research Center at Jackson State University, says his team is monitoring what happens with future funding. His colleagues know firsthand how crucial money will be – the campus has been switched to virtual classes due to the outage.

“Health, safety, economic vitality – water affects everything,” Mozee said. “The whole system, everything is at stake.”

Bracey Harris reported on Jackson; Daniella Silva reported from New York.

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