By Alex Rozier, Geoff Pender and Bobby Harrison
Pearl River flooding is exacerbating Jackson’s drinking water crisis, bringing warnings of a system-wide outage, causing some businesses and schools to close Monday and prompting some leaders to call for the state to take action.
“Our understanding is the water and sewer system serving 250,000 citizens of the state and numerous businesses is at the brink of collapsing,” Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said. “We have grave concerns for citizens’ health and safety … I believe it is time for the state to take an active role in finding a solution — both short term and long term.”
House Speaker Philip Gunn said: “I’ve been contacted by hospitals, businesses and schools pleading that something be done to address the water crisis in Jackson. Unfortunately, the city leadership has not presented a permanent solution or a comprehensive plan. These groups have turned to the state for help, and it seems we will have to evaluate what options might be available.”
The city’s state Senate delegation on Monday called on Gov. Tate Reeves to call a special session of the Legislature to address the crisis.
“The people of Jackson, Byram, Ridgeland and Hinds County are in day 32 of a boil-water notice,” the letter from the five senators said. “Water pressure issues are shutting down schools, businesses and government offices. Raw sewage discharge has closed the Pearl River. We need to act now. This issue is too important to wait until January and the 2023 legislative session.”
Some restaurants and other businesses in the Fondren area closed Monday as water pressure dropped to a trickle, and state agencies downtown were warned of a possible “system-wide water outage.” Several schools in the Jackson Public School District were forced to switch to virtual learning due to ongoing low water pressure and the threat of flooding.
Jackson’s antiquated, poorly maintained water and sewerage system has seen recurring failures — including loss of water for much of the city for a month after winter storms in 2021. Federal authorities have issued warnings the system is at risk of failure and of harmful contaminant levels. The city has been under a boil water notice for more than a month.
In a press conference on Monday to announce the Pearl River crested lower than expected and likely won’t bring widespread flooding of homes and businesses, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba announced the city had to reduce pressure for the entire city water system because of infiltration of floodwater. He said low-pressure issues could persist for a few days.
But in a message to state agencies downtown, the state Department of Finance and Administration warned the situation may be even more dire, and “there may be a system-wide water outage for the City of Jackson for the next several days.”
“We have spoken to the Governor’s office regarding the possible outage,” the message to state agencies said. “Please use your discretion for the health and safety of your agency.”
Lumumba’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comments on the discrepancy in messages.
The long-running city water crisis has prompted talk of a state intervention — perhaps even a takeover — of the system. But the estimated $1 billion price tag for a fix is daunting.
“I’m on the verge of saying that the state has got to step in and take over,” Gunn had said on Supertalk radio last week. “But the size of the problem is so great that I’m not even sure the state can meet the needs. It’s going to require federal help.”
Reeves’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comments Monday morning about possible state intervention.
On social media, state Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson — one of the five to call for a special legislative session — said it was time for the state to use a portion of its more than $2.5 billion in surplus funds to help fix the beleaguered water system.
Blount said, “It is important to remember that in the recent past the state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to benefit regional utility authorities on the Gulf Coast and in DeSoto County. The state also sent money to Rankin County to build a new sewer plant. The state, with unprecedented money in the bank, must step up and invest in Jackson and save a system that serves almost one-10th of all Mississippians. We must aside political and partisan differences and act now.’
But Blount also pointed out that the system must be better run on a local level, pointing out the city is losing millions of dollars annually because many Jackson residents never receive bills for their water usage.
“If every treatment plant and pipe were fixed today, we’d be back in this situation soon without fixing the billing,” he said.
While officials took solace in the less-than-expected Pearl River flooding Monday, Lumumba announced that the city had to reduce water pressure for the entire system because of an adjusted treatment procedure.
“Because of the river water that’s coming into the plant, we have to change the way we treat the water,” Lumumba said during a press conference Monday. “Because of the chemical composition of the water coming in, they have to figure out how they can tend with that additional water coming in.
“That has led to the reduction of water being put out into the system which consequently reduces the tank levels and affects system-wide the water pressure in the homes of our residents.”
Later, the city issued a press release saying it was handing out bottled water to residents, at the Grove Park Community Center, while supplies last.
Lumumba’s comments on the latest Jackson water system woes came at the end of the press conference Monday after the Pearl River crested at just under 35 and a half feet that morning, under the original projection of 36 feet. The flood waters had only reached inside of one home, the mayor said.
The flooding came as a result of heavy rains last month, resulting in the wettest August on record for central Mississippi.