But it also portends what could soon happen in other American communities, as the worsening impacts of climate change push underfunded and overstretched water systems to the brink.
“All public drinking water systems in the country are vulnerable to natural disasters,” said Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer at Purdue University, who has advised utilities and the U.S. military on water safety issues. ‘water. “But many are not really ready to react as they should.”
Generations-old sewers are regularly overwhelmed by larger storms. Algal blooms and excess sediment can contaminate reservoirs during high temperatures and prolonged drought. Sea level rise can block septic tanks and cause salt water to seep into wells. When wildfires destroy water pipes and spread chemical contamination, it can take months for drinking water to be safe again.
But experts say the danger is greatest in places like Jackson — low-income communities of color facing fragile and failing water infrastructure. A 2019 study reported in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers found that Black, Latino, Native American, and Alaska Native households are disproportionately likely to be “plumbing poor.”
“You can’t define structural racism any more clearly than infrastructure management in this country,” said public policy scholar Andre Perry, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a DC think tank.
Unequal water systems “literally lay the groundwork for racial disparities”, he added. And climate change is intensifying the damage.
Although Jackson’s water quality struggles date back decades and involve a tussle between state and local authorities over responsibility, it was a month of historic rainfall that swung a lingering problem in the current emergency.
A large, slow-moving storm swelled the Pearl River past flood stage and spilled water onto the streets. The subsequent rains and flooding put a strain on the city’s main water treatment plant; pump failures compounded the damage, leaving the city unable to provide a constant flow of safe water.
When water pressure drops, as it did in Jackson, it also allows contaminants to enter the system, Whelton said. Microbe-laden floodwater seeps through the holes in the pipes. Soil toxins and spilled chemicals can end up in the drinking water supply. When a community’s water infrastructure is old, corroded, or exposed to the elements, it becomes that much easier for contamination to seep through.
In Jackson’s system, which contains 1,500 miles of water pipes, Whelton said the pressure had dropped so low that the water wasn’t just undrinkable – it couldn’t even reach the ends of the pipes. pipes.
“It means you’ve lost complete control of your water system,” he said.
The result was surprising to those living outside of Mississippi, but not surprising to those who struggled with Jackson’s fragile system.
“I’ve said many times that it’s not about whether our system will fail, it’s about when our system will fail,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told a news conference. Tuesday afternoon.
Late Tuesday, President Biden approved a declaration of emergency for the water crisis in Jackson, which will free up additional federal resources to help state and local authorities deal with the disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed personnel to the state emergency operations center, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency will send an expert to assess the Jackson treatment plant and is working to expedite the delivery of any equipment needed for repairs.
The city also announced Wednesday that it would distribute bottled water to residents and provide non-potable water to be used for toilet flushing, laundry and cleaning.
But while Jackson’s water struggles are in the national spotlight this week, his situation is not unique. In recent weeks, nearly half a dozen 1,000-year rain events devastated places such as eastern Kentucky, St. Louis and Dallas.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has raised serious concerns about the country’s drinking water infrastructure, giving it a C-minus on its latest report card.
“The system is aging and underfunded,” the group wrote in its assessment, noting that there is a water main break every two minutes and about 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost. every day in the United States – enough to fill more than 9,000 swimming pools. swimming pools.
U.S. stormwater infrastructure was ranked even lower, with engineers warning that few systems could afford the high cost of renovations to deal with climate change-related flooding.
“The need for transformational change in how we adapt to this challenge has never been more urgent,” Melissa Roberts, executive director of the American Flood Coalition, said in an email.
“We are now seeing amounts of precipitation that would have previously taken several days in a matter of hours,” Roberts said. “As a result, many of our current stormwater systems are overwhelmed.”
It is not just floods that can endanger hydraulic infrastructures. When the deadliest fire in California history ripped through the town of Paradise in 2018, local drinking water became contaminated with carcinogenic benzene and other dangerous substances. Rainfall after the fire washed ash and burned debris into local lakes and streams, contaminating community water sources. Even household filters weren’t enough to remove the pollution, the county health department warned.
At the other end of the country, in Lowndes County, Alabama., activists say climate change has exacerbated long-standing sewage problems, preventing the ground from absorbing effluent from septic tanks and causing untreated waste to rise up into people’s yards and homes. Last year, the Justice Department launched an investigation into whether the county discriminated against its majority black residents by denying them access to adequate sanitation facilities.
Mukesh Kumar, a former Jackson State professor and Jackson’s chief planning officer, said cities across the country not only have to deal with aging infrastructure, but one that was built to withstand the challenges of an earlier era. .
“Now we expect all of this infrastructure to work under more stressful circumstances,” said Kumar, now director of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization in Texas.
“The scariest thing for me is how much we don’t know,” he added. “Even though we are making progress in understanding climate change and its impacts, we still cannot identify the vulnerabilities of each system.”
At the same time, Kumar said more and more communities are working to make their water and sewage systems more resilient in ways that haven’t happened in the past. And new congressional spending will bolster those efforts.
“This is a unique and wonderful resource,” and one that comes at a critical time, he said.
The bipartisan Infrastructure Act passed last year has provided the EPA with more than $50 billion to upgrade stormwater and sewer systems, protect waterways from climate-related threats, replace damaged or unsafe service and other water infrastructure improvements. In a letter directing governors to focus their efforts on needy areas, EPA Administrator Michael Regan specifically cited Jackson as a city in need of support.
This year’s Inflation Reduction Act has given fresh impetus to water supply systems, including funds to improve water access in vulnerable communities, prevent stormwater runoff and alleviate drought.
But Whelton, the environmental engineer, said governments were still not investing enough in the human aspects of disaster management, such as training utility managers and technical assistance for failing systems.
“Most people like fixing pipes and taking pictures,” he said. “But when it comes time to make decisions about an ongoing disaster, the resources aren’t always there.”
For now, the acute crisis in Jackson remains, with no end in sight.
“That’s our reality,” said De’keither Stamps, who represents Jackson in the state legislature. “We have been in a permanent state of emergency for a long time.
Stamps said there was “enough blame for everyone” for how the city ended up in such dire straits. But blame and dysfunction won’t solve today’s problems — and those that likely lie ahead, he said.
“Leaders at all levels should work together more, from local to state to federal,” Stamps said. “We cannot let a tragedy happen and move on without a serious investment in resolving it.”