Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis: Repairs have begun at the sewage treatment plant, but residents still have no clean water

The issue has upended life in the city of around 150,000, where schools are closed, businesses are forced to adapt and people have had to queue for bottled water they can use for cooking or brushing teeth.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told CNN on Wednesday he was optimistic that water would be restored to residents this week. “But there’s a huge mountain to climb to get there,” he added.

Recent torrential rains and flooding rivers caused the town’s already deteriorating main water treatment plant, the OB Curtis Water Treatment Plant, to fail, rendering it unable to pump clean water from constant way.

On Wednesday, a rental pump was installed at the facility that authorities say will help add an additional 4 million gallons of water per day to the system. The state has also contracted outside contractors to begin critical emergency repair work.

“We are removing bad water from the system and making mechanical improvements to prevent an even more catastrophic failure,” Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said at a press conference Wednesday.

But even as fixes are made, there have been outages in the system that are causing low water pressure or no water at all for Jackson residents, and the governor warned, “there will be future interruptions… they are not avoidable at this stage”. .”

As operators rush to fix water pressure issues, one water quality issue remains. The city has been under a boil water advisory since the end of July.

“Our immediate priority is to have running water, even temporarily sacrificing some quality standards where we absolutely must, to meet basic health and safety needs,” Reeves said, urging residents not to not drink water without boiling it.

“We hope that we will be able to increase the amount of water, which will eventually fill the reservoirs more and eventually lead to a scenario in which we can carry out the appropriate tests and actually produce clean water,” said said the governor. “But we are not there yet.”

Cars line up Wednesday at a water distribution site at the Grove Park Community Center in Jackson, Mississippi.

Daily life turned upside down in Jackson

As authorities rush to make repairs, bring needed parts and deal with staffing shortages at Jackson’s water plants, the crisis is disrupting the daily lives of residents.

They see cloudy, discolored water coming out of their taps and are told it should be adequate for sanitation purposes. They cannot use the water for drinking, cooking or washing dishes, but officials said they can shower and wash their hands in it.

“Please make sure in the shower that your mouth is not open,” Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of health protection at the Mississippi Department of Health, said Wednesday, adding that pets should not consume more water.

According to the mayor, it is not known when residents will no longer have to boil the water and that cannot be assessed until the water pressure returns to normal.

Meanwhile, all Jackson public schools switched to virtual learning on Tuesday. Jackson State University also moved to online classes this week and installed portable showers and toilets on campus.

“It feels like we’re living in a nightmare right now,” sophomore Erin Washington told CNN. Another student described seeing brown, smelly water coming out of faucets on campus.

What's it like trying to survive without water in Jackson, Mississippi

Local businesses, still trying to recover from setbacks related to Covid-19, are also struggling to stay afloat. The business sector hardest hit is the city’s hospitality industry, said Jeff Rent, president and CEO of Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership.

“Hotels and restaurants, already on low margins, cannot open or must make special accommodations, including the purchase of ice, water and soft drinks,” Rent said.

Father-of-five Kehinde Gaynor said the current water shortage was frustrating for his family.

“It’s devastating as a father because we’re the breadwinners of the family. Right now we’re just paralyzed because we have no control over what happens outside the home,” said said Gaynor.

Residents had to endure long lines to get bottled water and undrinkable water from city-run distribution sites. The operation has struggled this week, with some sites running out of water and people being turned away.

The governor said the “supersites” will be operational Thursday, making more water available to residents with the help of the National Guard.

President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for Jackson, and Reeves said it would allow Mississippi to tap into critical resources to respond to the crisis.

The OB Curtis water plant is seen Wednesday in Ridgeland, north of Jackson, Mississippi.

Longer term fixes are needed

Authorities knew it was only a matter of time before the aging sewage treatment plant broke down. OB Curtis’ main pumps were badly damaged early in the summer and replaced with smaller standby pumps, Reeves said this week without giving details of the damage.

Although improvements have been made to the system with the installation of the temporary pump on Wednesday, significant mechanical and electrical issues remain due to deferred maintenance, including various pumps and motors that need to be replaced and sludge in the basins that have accumulated to levels that are “unacceptable,” Craig said.

The water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi has gotten so bad that the city temporarily ran out of bottled water to give to residents

Additionally, the system has faced staffing issues that further complicate matters, officials said.

There is also the question of flood. The reservoir’s inlet water has been affected by recent heavy rains, creating a chemical imbalance on the conventional treatment side of the plant, Craig said Wednesday. This affected particle removal, causing that side of the plant to temporarily shut down and resulting in a loss of water distribution pressure.

Recent complications have only compounded Jackson’s long-standing water system problems.

Quad Johnson, center, carries packets of bottled water to cars at a water distribution site at the Grove Park Community Center in Jackson, Mississippi, on Wednesday.
In February 2021, a severe winter storm hit, pipes freezing and bursting and leaving many residents without water for a month.
This came after Jackson’s water system in early 2020 failed a Environmental Protection Agency inspection, which revealed that drinking water had the potential to harbor harmful bacteria or parasites.
Opinion: Jackson's water crisis endgame?

In July 2021, the EPA and the city reached an agreement to address “long-term challenges and make necessary improvements to the drinking water system.” The EPA also recently announced $74.9 million in federal funding for water and sewer infrastructure for Mississippi.

Advocates have already pointed out systemic and environmental racism as one of the causes of Jackson’s persistent water problems and lack of resources to address them. About 82.5% of Jackson’s population identifies as black or African American, according to census datawhile the state legislature is predominantly white.

Asked Wednesday about claims that the deterioration of water infrastructure in Jackson is the result of environmental racism, Reeves said the state does not manage water systems.

“In the state of Mississippi, we have a large number of municipalities that run their own water system. We have a large number of rural water associations that run their own water system. Before Monday of this week , Mississippi State operates exactly zero water systems,” he said.

CNN’s Amy Simonson, Melissa Alonso, Jason Hanna and Amir Vera contributed to this report.

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