‘It’s just frustrating’ | Water crisis pushes Byram, fairgrounds to come off of Jackson water

West Rankin cites consent decree as reason to leave sewer system.
Published: Feb. 16, 2022 at 5:58 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Broken water mains that go unrepaired. Unanswered customer complaints. Leaky meters that are never fixed.

Byram Mayor Richard White says he’s watched in recent years as Jackson’s water problems have spilled into his city.

“The last couple of years, with their service and response to everything... They are not doing everything they’re supposed to be doing as far as taking care of our water situation,” he said. “We’ve been without water for several weeks at a time... It’s just frustrating to have to put up with this.”

Byram, which is located south of Jackson, was incorporated in 2006. Despite having its own government, its own city hall, its own code of ordinances, its own police force, and its own fire department, it still relies on Jackson water.

However, city leaders are working to change that. The suburb of nearly 11,000 recently brought on an engineer to appraise its water infrastructure. That appraisal is the first step it must take before it can come off of Jackson water.

If Byram does come off of the city’s supply, it would be the third major customer to wave goodbye to Jackson in recent years.

The Mississippi Department of Agriculture recently built its own water well at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds so it would not have to rely on the city service. And late last summer, the West Rankin Utility Authority (WRUA) recently began diverting its waste from the city’s sewer system to its own wastewater treatment facility on the east side of the Pearl River.

The loss of those customers would mean a loss of millions of dollars in revenue for an already cash-strapped capital city and comes at a time when the city needs more than $1.7 billion to address its aging water and sewer system.

White said water service in the city has deteriorated over the years, but it was the February winter water crisis that pushed Byram into making its decision. “When it snowed and all, they even couldn’t wash. They had to go somewhere to wash their clothes and to eat and everything else,” he said. “It was a long time... 30 to 45 days.”

While much of the focus during last year’s crisis was on Jackson and the roughly 100,000 citizens who were without water, White was quick to point out that his people, too, couldn’t turn on the tap.

“When you are transporting 25 gallons of water to some people that are on dialysis... so they can get their dialysis done three days a week... That’s not what I need to be doing,” White said. “We’re not gonna do that.”

However, the mayor said residents and city leaders were frustrated with Jackson’s service long before winter storms dried up their faucets.

“When people call us it’s usually when they’ve been messing with it for two or three weeks or two or three months and have no response. And, by the way, on more than one occasion, they (Jackson water officials) have said that Byram owns their own water, call them... and that’s frustrating,” he said. “When I call them and I have my guy send them an email saying ‘this street, this address, this, this, and this,’ and they call back and say, ‘would you check them and see what we need to do to bring stuff with us or whatever,’ that’s not the way it works. I don’t expect a utility company to call me and ask me to go out and check stuff for them.”

“I spent 45 percent of my time every day messing with water and that’s not right. We’ve got a lot bigger fish to fry and I’m not going to keep it up.”

The agriculture department’s decision to build its own water supply also was prompted by the February crisis.

“We lost water during the rodeo last year, during the Dixie National. We had visitors here from all over the country. I think we had visitors from 40 states here on site,” said Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gibson. “We lost water because of the failure of the city water system. We couldn’t flush the commodes in the coliseum with 10,000 people... and all the cows needed water to drink.”

“It was a crisis, not only a crisis of convenience but a public health crisis,” he said. “We could not wait for that fix to happen before we did what we had to do, to get water independent here on the fairgrounds.”

Gibson signed an emergency order to build the well the same month of the crisis, and construction got underway in July. Work cost around $1.4 million.

“The well is done. We’ve got water. We’ve got plenty of water, good water. And the only thing remaining now is... connecting a three-phase electric line to get that pump running,” he said. “Very soon, we’re going to turn the water on at the state fairgrounds, so we will have our own water, no matter what.”

As the new well at the fairgrounds goes online, a new wastewater treatment facility in Rankin County has been up and running for months.

Construction on the $95 million facility wrapped up last summer. West Rankin Utility Authority began diverting its wastewater to the plant on September 30.

West Rankin, which serves several municipalities, state agencies, and unincorporated areas in Rankin County, opted to build its own plant years ago, to allow cities there to control their own destiny. Once the new plant went online, the authority stopped sending its wastewater to Jackson.

“We really did not want to leave the system. I mean, the goal was to try to stay where we were, and continue working with Jackson,” said WRUA attorney Keith Turner. “But, you know, it finally became clear that in the best interest of the citizens of West Rankin, we needed to have our own system to be able to control our destiny, to be able to make sure that there was wastewater there when we needed it.”

West Rankin Utility Authority attorney Keith Turner discusses reasons why the authority came off of Jackson's sewer system.

Turner said a major impetus was not the February water crisis, but the city’s sewer consent decree.

Jackson entered into a sewer consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2012 or 2013, to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality laws.

Then-Mayor Harvey Johnson estimated decree costs would be around $400 million. West Rankin would have been on the hook for about a quarter of that amount and realized it would probably be cheaper to build its own plant.

At the same time, West Rankin was skeptical of the $400 million price tag city officials had put with the decree.

“We had a lot of documents that were developed and we had our engineers analyze it and it was clear to them that the cost to fix the plant was dramatically higher than that and ultimately we were proven right,” Turner said. “It made sense for us financially... to consider the construction of a new plant.”

West Rankin Utility Authority.
West Rankin Utility Authority.(Special to WLBT)

Today, the Lumumba administration estimates the city will have to spend about $960 million to address decree mandates.

Whatever the reason for breaking away, losing West Rankin and Byram represent a major financial blow for the financially-challenged city.

A WLBT analysis shows that customers in Byram pay between $3,233,477 and $3,361,717 annually. Meanwhile, during its second-to-last year on the city’s system, West Rankin paid Jackson $3,667,653.

Combined, the amounts would account for more than 12 percent of the $57.6 million Jackson it is expected to bring in through water/sewer sales to customers this year.

Meanwhile, Jackson needs more than at least $1.76 billion to address its water and sewer needs. The sewer consent decree is expected to cost an estimated $960 million to implement. Jackson also must spend another $170 million to bring its water system into compliance with an EPA administrative order approved by the Jackson City Council last summer.

Jackson is planning to spend millions more to winterize the Curtis plant to better protect it from winter weather. The city issued a roughly $27 million state-revolving loan fund recently to help pay for that work.

The city council also has approved spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more to repair damage at the plant caused by a fire that occurred there in April.

In December, the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) gave Jackson 120 days to make the repairs associated with that fire, or if more time was needed, to submit a request for an extension.

The parts needed for the repairs were ordered in January. On January 28, the city was asked to sign a “bilateral compliance agreement” with MSDH to get additional time to complete the installation of the new panel. Under the new agreement, Jackson would have until June 22.

The EPA administrative order, winterization work, and repairs related to the April fire are immediate requirements.

A 2013 water master plan conducted by Neel-Schaffer Engineering on behalf of the Johnson administration estimated that Jackson would need to invest an additional $517 million over 20 years to address distribution, transmission, and storage facilities.

Based on inflation, the total cost for that plan today would be more than $631 million and none of the projects included in the master plan would address mandates handed down by EPA and MSDH.

Addressing $1.76 billion in water and sewer needs would be a tall order for any municipality, but it is an especially high mountain to climb for the capital city, which has faced declining revenues brought about by a shrinking population, and billing challenges associated with its failed Siemens contract.

Jackson brought on Siemens in 2013 to replace the city’s water meters and put in place a new billing system that would allow meters to communicate directly with the billing office. The nearly $90 million contract was supposed to pay for itself over time by offering more accurate meter readings, helping the city and customers better detect leaks, and by doing away with the city’s meter reading staff.

The system never worked, bills quit going out, and in April 2018, the city’s financial department announced that Jackson’s water and sewer enterprise fund was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented the city with yet another wrinkle. Due to the health crisis, the city quit turning off customers’ water for nonpayment.

The Lumumba administration ended the moratorium on shutoffs on September 1. Collections hit $6 million for the month of October.

And in February, the city announced on social media that crews had begun replacing the water meters that were put in place as part of the Siemens deal.

Keith Turner, meanwhile, says West Rankin’s decision to come off of Jackson’s sewer system could actually reduce the city’s sewer expenses, in part, by reducing the amount of wastewater that has to be treated. He also says that with West Rankin’s departure, capacity at the Savanna plant has gone up.

“And they need capacity because, during their stormwater events, the collection system has got so many leaks in it, that the system, the treatment system gets overwhelmed,” he said. “And so now, our wastewater is no longer there. They have additional capacity to handle more problems like that without necessarily going into noncompliance mode.”

“I understand people’s perspectives on this, but the fact is... it wasn’t done to harm Jackson. It wasn’t done to offend Jackson. It was done because it was in the best interest of West Rankin... They just thought it was the best path.”

WRUA member citiesPopulation
(West Rankin also serves the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, the Mississippi State Hospital, residents along the Ross Barnett Reservoir and several state agencies)Source: U.S. Census Bureau

In Byram’s case, fewer water customers down south could benefit a system that is plagued with broken pipes and low water pressure.

City Engineer Charles Williams, though, doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t think anytime you lose revenue, it’s a betterment to the city. We have not really evaluated what that would look like if Byram does decide to move forward... and what that loss of revenue would look like. When that time comes, we’ll have to look at how we can fill in that gap of lost revenue.”

This is part two of a three-part series on Jackson water. Click here to read part one.

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