Leaders say feds will have to step up to help address state’s water woes

Lumumba on Stokes
Lumumba on Stokes(David Kenney)
Updated: Feb. 24, 2021 at 5:48 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has found an ally in at least two public service commissioners in calling for the federal government to help Jackson address its water infrastructure needs.

Central District Commissioner Brent Bailey and Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley agree with the mayor that federal funds will be needed to help cities across the state rebuild their aging water treatment and distribution systems in the wake of severe winter storms.

“No doubt our water infrastructure has been woefully neglected when it comes to federal funding,” Presley said. “We hope as part of an infrastructure bill, a federal infrastructure bill, we can see some money appropriated for water improvements.”

Winter storms ripped across the state last week, bringing with them freezing rain, ice, and sub-freezing temperatures, crippling many cities’ abilities to provide drinking water to residents.

In Jackson’s case, freezing temperatures, coupled with the lower water surface temperatures at the Ross Barnett Reservoir, caused equipment at its main treatment plant to literally freeze up.

At the height of the crisis, nearly 43,000 customers in the capital city were without water. The crisis became so bad that Gov. Tate Reeves activated the National Guard to help distribute potable and non-potable water.

In other cases, municipal water systems were ill-equipped to handle the power outages that came with the storm.

In Crystal Springs, for instance, the city struggled to get the generator at its well system working, causing water treatment to come to a standstill.

Cities like Canton, meanwhile, dealt with broken water mains, lines that ruptured because of shifting ground and lower water temperatures.

“We have aging infrastructure,” Canton Mayor William Truly said. “We have infrastructure that’s 50 years of age and older, and when you freeze those pipes, the natural consequence is to rupture.”

Lumumba mentioned similar concerns during a Monday press conference.

“We’re an aging U.S. city and our pipes are old. We are long overdue for a major investment from the federal government in city infrastructure,” he said “That’s why Houston, Austin, Shreveport, Vicksburg, (and) Canton are all dealing with the same thing Jackson is.”

Lumumba estimates it would take about $2 billion to address the city’s water and sewer needs, money that the cash-strapped city simply does not have.

“The entire budget for everything we do is in the $300 million range,” he said. “That’s an impossible feat.”

Aging pipes aside, Lumumba said infrastructure in Jackson and other “legacy” cities was not built to handle the effects of climate change.

He said Jackson’s water system, for instance, was designed to handle a warmer, drier climate. However, climate change has led to colder winters, hotter summers, and more rainy seasons.

Three such weather events have occurred in the last 11 years, wreaking havoc on the city’s system. In 2018, an arctic blast led to 300 main breaks and water outages across Jackson. A similar winter storm led to more than 100 breaks in 2010.

“The infrastructure we built is shouldering a heavier burden and is aged on top of it,” Lumumba said.

Unlike previous winter storms, though, the damage in 2021 appeared to be more widespread.

Said Bailey, “Certainly it was more widespread, with water outages from Greenville to Natchez and everywhere in between.”

Bailey was unsure how much it would cost to repair water infrastructure across Mississippi.

However, he pointed to an annual report conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), which estimated that $4.8 billion would be needed over the next two decades.

According to the 2020 report, “much of the state’s drinking water infrastructure is beyond or nearing the end of its design life, with older systems losing as much as 30 to 50 percent of their treated water to leaks and breaks.”

ASCE also outlined some of the state’s operation and maintenance challenges, saying that “insufficient funds from ratepayers result in infrequent maintenance schedules and a lack of resources to perform routine O&M.”

Bailey said apart from raising rates, the federal government could pass a bill much like it did to help states expand broadband service. Nearly $495 million came into Mississippi as a result of that legislation - not enough to fix all of the state’s water problems, but definitely a start.

“We believe the federal government certainly has a component to play,” Bailey said. “I think it’s something that’s going to be needed, particularly (for) the scale of improvements that we need not only for the city of Jackson but frankly all across the state.”

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