Year in Review: The Jackson Water Crisis

Published: Dec. 30, 2022 at 7:13 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - While water system challenges for the capital city are nothing new, 2022 saw unprecedented assistance from state and federal agencies all with one ultimate goal: fix what leaders here have allowed to fall into disrepair for decades.

“We have plenty of plans. We don’t have the funding,” former city engineer Charles Williams said.

Money has been constantly cited as the biggest hurdle to solving Jackson’s water crisis.

Our three-part investigation in February estimated the city would need more than $1.7 billion to satisfy its consent decrees, a federal order, and its most recent master plan.

“Our inside joke is ‘the Legislature loves to hate Jackson.’ And they demonstrate that by making it very, very tough for us to get resources from the Legislature each year,” State Sen. John Horhn (D-Jackson) said.

Horhn’s comments weren’t that far off.

During the 2022 Legislative session, lawmakers decided to provide a dollar-for-dollar match for each dollar of federal funding Jackson would commit toward water repairs, initially capped at $25 million, and later increased to more than $35 million.

That amount is a drop in the bucket compared to what the city needs.

In late June, an ammonia tank leak and problems with the membrane filtration system at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant led to a citywide boil water notice and loss in pressure for customers.

Around the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency began requesting records from the city related to staffing.

A 3 On Your Side investigation would later detail what the city sent to the agency: internal emails that painted a more dire picture of the plants’ working conditions than leaders had ever publicized before.

One from Charles Williams said if they lost any more operators at either treatment plant, “a shutdown is unavoidable.”

Our analysis of timesheets sent to the EPA shows that same month, there were approximately 153 hours where no Class A operator was on duty at the Curtis plant, a violation of state and federal law.

The emails also revealed friction between former Public Works Director Marlon King and former deputy director of water operations, Mary Carter.

Carter sent emails pleading with King to get information so she could hire another operator, telling him that after working 24 to 36 hours each weekend for more than six months, she was just worn down.

She also gave interviews to WLBT.

A few weeks after our investigation aired, King resigned and Carter was let go.

In late August, after heavy rainfall caused the Pearl River to swell seven feet above flood stage, Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency and for the first time in recent history, authorized the state to temporarily take over water operations of the city.

At that time, Jackson had been under another citywide boil water notice for a month, one the State Department of Health issued.

“Until it is fixed, it means we do not have reliable running water at scale,” Reeves said.

Multiple state agencies and experts from around the country repaired the main treatment plant, restoring water and lifting the notice within two weeks.

Then on November 30 - amid continued problems at O.B. Curtis - a federal judge appointed Ted Henifin to be in charge of Jackson’s entire water system for the next year.

That includes billing issues, too.

The federal takeover comes after three visits this year alone from EPA chief Michael Regan.

Henifin’s honeymoon period wouldn’t last long, however.

Several days of below-freezing temperatures tested the winterization efforts already constructed at the Curtis plant, leading to yet another citywide boil water notice on Christmas Day and little to no water pressure for thousands of Jacksonians once again.

“I’m all about making sure we get the best value of those dollars and they go for the right things in the right places. And we make a difference. And shame on us if we if we waste any of it along the way,” Henifin said.

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