Can lawmakers take over Jackson’s water system for good? Not under current laws, experts say

Published: Oct. 10, 2022 at 9:16 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - While state health officials remain at the helm of Jackson’s water treatment plants, going through a laundry list of emergency items to fix so the state’s largest city can continue to have clean drinking water, many want to know what the future of the city’s aging water and sewer systems will look like, and whether Mississippi lawmakers even have the authority to completely take over those systems.

“I think the state is hesitant about stepping in and taking a full leadership role. Now we’ve taken over the water system temporarily because of the unsafe drinking water conditions,” said State Sen. John Horhn, a Democrat and member of Jackson’s delegation. “By law, we had to do that. But a long term solution...we’ve got to be a little bit more thoughtful about that.”

3 On Your Side talked to lawmakers and legal experts on background for this story, finding that there seem to be only two ways the state can step in and take over Jackson’s water and sewer systems permanently.

The first involves public health statutes.

When Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency in late August after a near-collapse of the city’s water system and days of boil-water notices, the Mississippi State Department of Health and state’s emergency management agency stepped in to help shore up the system.

“The only other mechanism as I understand it is for the state to pass a new law that would allow for that. The Jackson water situation has brought a lot of discussion about that [possibility], and I’m sure there are a lot of people looking at what exactly can the state do to step in and address this situation,” said Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn.

Gunn won’t, however, rule out that possibility.

Even if such a bill was crafted, it could not become law without a legislative session.

With almost two months left before the start of the 2023 regular session, Gunn believes a special session is highly unlikely.

Horhn thinks it would be a mistake not to address this before next year.

“The state ought to be asked to focus in on this before the end of this year. As time passes, folks start to forget about how bad it was in July, August or September. And they tend to want to move on to something else,” Horhn said.

Only Reeves can call a special session.

Horhn believes the state should draft something that gives Jackson leaders ownership of the water and sewer assets, even if he admits a lack of confidence in the city’s ability to manage it.

If the state wants to step in -- and drafts new legislation to do so -- it needs to be with the city’s approval, Horhn said.

“There are 180,000 citizens who are dependent upon this Jackson water situation. And I think our objective from the state, at least my objective was to see what we can do to help those citizens. That’s the main thing,” Gunn said.

Want more WLBT news in your inbox? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.