Jackson, MS, Faces Municipal Water Crisis

JACKSON, MS  — On August 27th, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves issued a State of Emergency in anticipation of flooding from the Pearl River due to excessive rainfall. The flooding threatened not only property damage but seemed certain to overwhelm the city’s two water treatment plants. 

“My administration, including MEMA, is monitoring this situation closely, and actively working to respond as quickly as possible to ongoing developments with the flooding,” said Governor Reeves.

On August 29th, the Reuters News Agency reported that Jackson residents would have to go without reliable drinking water indefinitely after pumps at the main water treatment plant failed. Emergency responders organized the distribution of bottled water and tanker trucks for 180,000 people. By September 1st, the state had opened seven water distribution sites for those affected, staffed by more than 600 members of the Mississippi National Guard. 

As of September 12, according to NPR, residents of Jackson remained under a boil water order.

Ongoing Problems

Jackson has two water treatment plants. The O.B. Curtis plant treats 50 million gallons per day and the Fewell plant normally treats 20 million gallons per day. The O.B. Curtis plant is located near the Ross Barnett Reservoir, which doubles as water supply and flood control. Flooding at this reservoir, after the excessive rainfall event, affected the plant’s operation.

This, however, is only the latest in a series of ongoing problems, as reported in Stormwater magazine.

In 2021, winter storms and multiple days of below-freezing temperatures caused equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis plant. Many homes went without water for 18 days.

Since late July of this year, Jackson’s residents have been under a boil water notice due to water quality issues that included cloudiness and discoloration.

And, at the time of the latest failure, the O.B. Curtis plant’s main pumps had actually been damaged and out of operation for about a month. The plant had been operating on backup pumps when the flooding caused yet another failure.

In response to the crisis, the Water Environment Federation issued statement that reads in part:

This is an unacceptable situation in the United States in the 21st Century, which reflects a historic lack of investment in water infrastructure and in communities of color. The results, as seen in Jackson, are crumbling water systems, threats to public health, and significant economic losses. Unfortunately, there are many communities across the country that could be the next Jackson because of the lack of investment in water systems.

Nationwide Concern

The City of Jackson’s situation is ultimately not all that different from recent drinking water crises that have  struck and continue to concern the aging cities of Flint (MI), Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, Boston, and others. In fact, Mississippi’s latest Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave its drinking water systems a grade of ‘D’ in 2020 and warned then that the state needed to increase related investments drastically:

In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that Mississippi needs $4.8 billion over the next 20 years to fund safe drinking water infrastructure for the people of Mississippi. Much of the state’s current drinking water infrastructure is beyond or nearing the end of its design life, with older systems losing as much as 30-50% of their treated water to leaks and breaks…

On September 7, ASCE National President Dennis Truax, himself a Mississippi resident, said, “My heart goes out to all of those impacted in Jackson. No one should be without safe drinking water in the 21st Century.”

Nationally, of course, ASCE has been sounding the alarm for decades, ever since launching its overall U.S. Infrastructure Report Card in 1998 and re-issuing grades every four years in 16 categories, ranging from transportation and energy to water systems and waste management. Ironically, the most recent report card in 2021 actually raised the national grade for drinking water systems from ‘D’ to ‘C-.’ But that assessment was made well before the latest disastrous failures in Jackson.

Legislation and Investment

Last November witnessed the enactment of the new bipartisan infrastructure law (The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – H. R. 3684). As a result, the federal government is providing some $55 billion to support capitalization projects through the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs, including $15 billion specifically for lead service line replacement projects. EPA estimates there are 6 to 10 million lead service lines still in the ground across the country

In May, EPA announced that it is making available $7.28 billion in new federal grant funding for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF). This funding can be used for loans that help drinking water systems install treatment for contaminants, improve distribution systems by removing those lead service lines and improve system resiliency to natural disasters such as floods.

“I have visited with and heard from communities in Chicago, Flint, Jackson, and many other areas that are impacted by lead in drinking water,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan last December. “These conversations have underscored the need to proactively remove lead service lines, especially in low-income communities. The science on lead is settled—there is no safe level of exposure and it is time to remove this risk to support thriving people and vibrant communities.”

At that time, the Biden Administration announced a new “whole of government Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan,” which followed an EPA review of the latest revisions to the original Lead and Copper Rule, which had first gone into effect in 1991. Announced in December, the new Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCCR) were subsequently delayed twice, but went into effect in June. Their goal is “to advance critical lead service line inventories that are necessary to achieve 100% removal of lead service lines.”

EPA said it would also develop a new proposed rule, the Lead and Copper Rule Improvements, to help to implement and complete the replacement projects “as quickly as is feasible.” EPA also intends to consider opportunities to strengthen tap sampling requirements and explore options to reduce the complexity and confusion associated with the action level and trigger level, with a focus on reducing health risks in more communities.

At a June visit to the Pittsburgh offices of the AFL-CIO, EPA Administrator Regan joined Vice President Kamala Harris in announcing the LCR improvements and to cite tangible evidence of progress already this year. Toward that end, the White House noted that:

  • The City of Pittsburgh, PA, has budgeted $17.5 million to partner with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to complete projects to remediate lead in drinking water;
  • The City of Toledo, OH, plans to replace all private lead service lines in the city (approximately 3,000 lines) at no cost to homeowners. Additionally, the City will replace many public lead service lines co-located with private lines;
  • The City of Buffalo, NY, has budgeted $10 million for an expansion of its ROLL program so that at least an additional 1,000 homes can have their lead water service lines replaced. The City has already successfully replaced the lines in 500 homes and this expanded capacity will more than double its impact;
  • The Village of Elberta, MI, has received $3.4 million in grant and low-interest loans from USDA, leveraging an additional $2 million in state assistance, to improve their water system and remediate lead. Approximately, 79 percent of the service laterals in the water distribution system are known or suspected to contain lead.  USDA has an additional $23.8 million in projects containing lead remediation that are nearing approval and other applications in development;
  • The City of Linwood, KS, has been awarded $350,000 award by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) for its Water System Improvements Project. Leveraging $499,586 in HUD’s Community Development and Block Grant funds and $150,000 in applicant contribution, this project will enable Linwood to replace approximately 75 cast iron service lines that may contain lead joints and to make other necessary improvements to the distribution system;
  • The Anson Madison Water District in Maine has received a $6-million low-interest loan and $3.5-million grant to mitigate lead exposure for 3,700 residents. The work will replace lead lines and remediate lead plumbing, pipes, and paint in two area high schools and local child care facilities;
  • Columbus County, NC, has been awarded a $9.5 million rural development grant from USDA to cover the construction and cost overrun of a new replacement school facility housing Pre-K through 8th grade. This new facility replaces two school facilities ranging from 60-94 years old with asbestos in almost all flooring and lead paint throughout. 

Appearing with U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Marcia Fudge, Vice President Harris and Administrator Regan also announced an additional $500 million for states and local governments to reduce lead exposure and build healthier homes via the new Justice40 Initiative. That program allows states and municipalities to apply for the funds, targeting disadvantaged businesses and communities.

Getting it Right

Even as the federal government now moves forward more aggressively some environmental advocates are concerned the size of the investment may not be enough and the initial targets may not be the most needed.

“While there is much to like about this landmark federal investment in replacing lead service lines, key improvements are needed to equitably distribute funding and align this assistance with need,” said Cyndi Roper, a senior policy advocate in Michigan for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “This is because the current state-by-state funding distribution formula is based on past drinking water infrastructure needs assessments that did not include the cost of fully replacing lead service lines.”

Writing in July on the NRDC blog, Roper explained, “Every state has lead service lines, but some have significantly more than others. The highest concentration of lead service lines delivering water to homes are in the upper Midwest and Northeast states, as well as Texas… The states with the most lead service lines—like Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio—will receive far less per lead line than states with fewer lead service lines. For example, the states of Michigan and Missouri will receive an estimated $151 per lead service line, while some states with fewer lines will receive an estimated $7,441 and $10,098 per line, respectively.”

NRDC says the fix for this problem is for EPA to quickly complete its Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment (DWINSA) and to re-distribute the $15 billion for lead service lines based only on the number of lead service lines in each state or territory.

Of course, if and when those funding allocation revisions happen remains to be seen. But for now (as illustrated by the list above) the number of lead replacement projects moving forward is only accelerating. And the hope, both nationally and locally, is that this long-delayed work will now move quickly enough to avoid the next Flint or Jackson.

HPAC Engineering contributed reporting to this article.

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