Mayor, governor vow to work together to solve city’s water crisis

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and Gov. Tate Reeves vow to work together to solve Jackson's water...
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and Gov. Tate Reeves vow to work together to solve Jackson's water crisis.(WLBT)
Published: Sep. 7, 2022 at 2:08 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the city is prepared to “humbly” come to the table to seek help for its beleaguered water system.

Wednesday, the mayor was joined by EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Gov. Tate Reeves, in what was the second time the state’s top elected official and mayor of the state’s largest city have appeared in public since the water crisis began.

On August 29, the state stepped in to make repairs at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, after equipment failures there left tens of thousands of people without running water. On Monday, pressure for much of the city had been restored. However, Jackson remains under a state-imposed boil water notice.

Reeves said the state is currently doing “investigative” testing within the city’s water system but said it will likely be next week when the city can again begin testing to come off the boil notice.

“If you’re producing perfectly clean water out of the facility, it typically takes about three days to get the entire system flushed out... and that’s with everything working properly,” he said. “So, I don’t think Friday is a realistic goal, but I do think as you get into the weekend and into early next week, we’ll have a better idea of the samples and what the water quality looks like.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt... I think there’s general, broad agreement that the water being produced today is cleaner than it has been in a long, long time,” he added. “But again, the actual call on when the water is clean enough to not have a boil water notice is typically and will continue to be made by the State Department of Health.”

The notice has been in place since July 29, after samples determined that turbidity levels in the water were too high. Turbidity, or cloudiness, could be an indicator of whether the water has any disease-producing bacteria not killed during the treatment process.

Boil notices aside, much of Wednesday’s briefing focused on what’s next for the city, and how repairs to its water system will be funded.

Reeves said the state will prioritize Jackson’s applications for assistance to the grant program established during the 2022 legislative session.

The program, which is being administered by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, will provide matching grants to cities/counties that use their federal allocations of American Rescue Plan Act money on qualifying infrastructure projects. In all, $450 million in state ARPA funding has been set aside to provide those matching grants, the MDEQ website states.

“I think certainly our administration wants to work with the city and make sure that we prioritize whatever funding that they have, that they can match dollar-for-dollar... on these projects that are being worked on at the plant and throughout,” he said.

He said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers currently has a team at O.B. Curtis now working on long-term and intermediate plans.

The state and city have also been in talks with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and have reports from the Mississippi State Department of Health and EPA that it can use in drawing up those plans.

“And so, what I would tell you is, I am hopeful that intermediate and long-term planning is a collaborative effort between the city, the federal government, and the state,” he said.

City, state and federal leaders meet to discuss Jackson's ongoing water crisis.
City, state and federal leaders meet to discuss Jackson's ongoing water crisis.(Melissa Faith Payne/City of Jackson)

Jackson has about $25 million in ARPA funding that it plans to allocate to water projects, meaning that the city could receive an additional $25 million for qualifying projects.

“Part and parcel of our conversation was talking about the opening of the portal to receive some of these federal funds when it opens up,” Lumumba said. “Part of the commitment that the city of Jackson made is that we’re going to apply for these funds. And so, that will require engineered assessments, which we have.”

The online application portal for cities opened this month, according to MDEQ’s website.

“A lot of what we’ve relied on is also the expertise and the review of the EPA, which I imagine has also had experts at the table reviewing what they saw as critical needs,” Lumumba said. “But we also come to the table humbly, and I want to be clear on this, anything that the city of Jackson is submitting that is insufficient to meet its need, what we are expressing is... our desire for the support.”

Lumumba also said the city would be working to get as much of its existing State Revolving Loan funds forgiven, saying that it’s going to require more than a loan program to get Jackson water back on track.

“Because affordability becomes an issue, you know,’” he said. “The city’s debt structure becomes an issue for that.”

The change in tone comes two days after Reeves said he was not confident in Jackson’s ability to prepare a plan to fix the system, and a day after the mayor snapped back, saying the city has multiple plans that have been ignored by the state.

Reeves would not say whether he still lacked confidence in the city’s abilities, saying “the important thing, thus far, is there’s been a common commitment by all parties to work together in a collaborative way to get to the fix in the short-term to get clean drinking water as fast as possible, but also to work together to collaborate in the long-term, to develop a plan that includes all things from operations all the way to capital investments.”

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