‘Stars have aligned for Jackson’: Mayor announces $800M in federal funding for water, sewer

Published: Jan. 5, 2023 at 1:51 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Flanked by two poster boards highlighting Jackson’s water struggles over the years, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba stood in front of the press to announce some good news.

On Thursday, the mayor held a press briefing to formally announce that roughly $800 million in federal funding had been secured for the capital city’s water system.

“Today, we can finally say that after decades of kicking the can of crumbling infrastructure down the road, the stars have aligned,” he said. “At this moment in time, we have secured the expertise and funded needed to start repairing, replacing and modernizing Jackson’s water system.

The $800 million includes $600 million from H.R. 2617, the omnibus spending bill recently approved by Congress, $120 million in Water Resource and Development Act funding being directed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and more than $71 million in American Rescue Act Plan funds.

The latter amount is made up of more than $35 million the city received in a direct allocation from the COVID-19 relief measure, and an equal amount Jackson received through a matching grant program established by the state.

Jackson also received $4 million from state and tribal funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This collective funding represents the efforts of my administration, local and federal partners, and what they have put forth in just over 92 days to bring a long-overdue, historic investment into the city’s water and sewer infrastructure,” he said.

Lumumba went on to call the funding “transformative,” saying it will improve the lives of everyone on Jackson’s water system, both in the city and in neighboring municipalities.

“With these investments, the city of Jackson is nearly $800 million closer than we’ve ever been to [provide] the quality of life that our residents deserve,” he added.

The last two years, residents and business owners in the capital city have seen their lives upended by multiple water crises, from the 2021 winter water crisis, which left people without running water for weeks, to the August/September crisis, which prompted a temporary state takeover of Jackson’s water treatment system.

Residents experienced more water outages in December, after a severe cold front pushed through, again crippling the city’s ability to provide water.

“This most recent episode with freezing pipes and broken distribution lines... have only added insult to the indignity that Jacksonians have endured,” the mayor said. “The years of neglect have created a system that is unacceptable and inhumane.”

The mayor thanked several Congressional leaders for their support of the measure, including Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Bennie Thompson, the only two from the Mississippi delegation to vote in support of the omnibus bill. He also thanked President Joe Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

“They now understand what I’ve been saying for the past six years. It’s not a matter of if our system will fail, but when it would fail again,” he said. “And through their direct investments, we will emerge stronger than ever before.”

He also commended the appointment of Ted Henifin as interim third-party manager. Henifin was appointed to the position in November as part of a federal stipulated court order.

“Mr. Henifin’s role in Jackson as the interim third-party manager is to repair the broken water system. The stipulated order and powers authorize him to use his expertise to identify and resolve the issues with the system,” he said. “As your mayor, I remain the chief executive of the city, and more specifically as it relates to the water system, it is my responsibility to secure the funding that will support Ted’s work.”

It’s unclear when the money will be available. “We do not have the cash on hand to go out and dig up and replace every line in the city tomorrow,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s just now how government funding works.”

“The appropriation means that these funds have been set aside for Jackson, for a reimbursement, as we identify and complete our various water infrastructure projects,” he said. “The process... will take years to complete.”

Plans are already being drawn up for how the funds would be used. Henifin previously said at a town hall meeting that he wanted to replace 100 miles of small diameter pipeline over the next five years. The mayor said the funding from the Corps will go toward that.

Henifin said at least a portion of the other funds would go toward implementing a list of priority projects included in the court order. He recently submitted his schedule for implementation to EPA and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality for review.

Henifin had to submit a project implementation schedule to EPA and MDEQ 30 days after being...
Henifin had to submit a project implementation schedule to EPA and MDEQ 30 days after being named ITPM.(WLBT)

“So, $450 million is SRF money for infrastructure, with $150 million coming in as technical assistance money that has much broader applications, still water focused, but we can use it for a variety of things,” Henifin said, referring to the omnibus bill. “So, they can provide technical support. We can do some debt relief with that.”

“There’s a lot of things potentially we can do with that money, but we’re constantly in contact with EPA to understand more about what’s eligible and what isn’t. It’s not as black and white as the SRF.”

SRF is the state revolving loan fund. The $450 million from the omnibus bill is going to that program specifically for Jackson water projects.

Henifin previously said that work being funded with the allocations will likely take years to complete, in part, due to the capacity of the local contracting community.

In the meantime, the mayor says Jackson’s system remains vulnerable to severe weather, just as it when local media reported on the city’s water issues back in 1996 and 2005.

Lumumba pointed to the poster-sized news articles that were on display during the press conference. The reports highlighted the city’s previous water challenges, including a request from a past mayor for residents to conserve water.

“It’s been deteriorating for decades and there isn’t a valve to turn or a part to replace that can fix it overnight,” he said. “But the good news is that with the funding secured, and the experts now in place, we will start to see fewer and fewer disruptions over time.”

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