A Mississippi city's water system is collapsing. The federal infrastructure bill could help save it, but only if the state cooperates.

·11 min read

JACKSON, Miss. - Annie Bolden was on her way to the mailbox - past her rose bushes and sage - when she smelled something pungent and spotted brown goo bubbling from her emerald-green lawn. 

For nearly a month, workers came and went, trying to stem the tide erupting from a clogged pipe. But to no avail: Bolden's front yard was cleaved by a river of sewage. Her neighborhood of tidy ranch houses in Mississippi's state capital became hostage to an overpowering stench, one reflecting the rot at the heart of the city's water system. 

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"My grandbabies can't play here. I can't have company. It's been weeks now, and it's devastating," said the 68-year-old retiree, as a flock of buzzards perched in the surrounding pines. "Nobody should have to live like this." 

In Jackson, many do. Earlier this year, some of the city's 150,000 residents endured a month without drinking water following a harsh winter storm. But even in good times, few trust the gritty and often-discolored fluid that flows from their taps. Sewage, meanwhile, gets dumped by the billions of gallons into local rivers - or onto residents' property. 

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure billpassed by Congress late Friday is supposed to fix that, offering what President Joe Biden has called a "once-in-a-generation" chance to rebuild dilapidated water and other essential systems across the nation. "Never again can we allow what happened in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi," Biden has declared. 

Yet in Jackson, expectations for what the bill can accomplish are tempered by an understanding of just how deep the problems run. The disinvestment in Jackson - which is 82% Black, the highest for any major city in America - has been ongoing for far more than a generation. And there are fears the neglect could continue even after Biden ends up signing the bill, as Republican state lawmakers will ultimately decide where Mississippi's water funds go. 

         

         

While the debate in Congress just ended, the jousting over funds in state capitals is just beginning.

"We have to assume this is going to be a fight for basic goods and services," said Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

And it's one he's not optimistic that Jackson will win.

"Anyone who thinks Mississippi will change the very consistent practice of not investing in Black people, they're delusional," Perry said. "If you're the president of the United States and you have an equity agenda, you have to be worried that this money going to statehouses will not actually get to places like Jackson." 

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba is well aware of the pattern. The city is often the reason federal funding comes to Mississippi due to the high level of need, he said in an interview at Jackson's white-columned city hall. But it often doesn't receive what he considers to be its fair share.

"We have to make certain that does not happen," he said.

Whether it does could be an existential question for this city - and for others like it nationwide that have been marred by a breakdown in the essential requirements of urban life: clean water, functioning roads and bridges, reliable public transit, a stable electric grid, a fast Internet connection. 

Jackson's population has been in decline for more than 40 years, and it is among the country's fastest shrinking cities. But as the tax base has dwindled, the amount of piping and power needed to distribute water across the city's vast geography - 114 square miles - has not. Federal aid, officials acknowledge, is the only realistic hope the city has of keeping up with a repair bill that grows exponentially each year as decades-old equipment fails. 

Without that help, "it's a very dim outlook for municipalities like Jackson that are losing population and have very aged infrastructure," said Charles Williams, Jackson's chief engineer. 

Williams estimated the city will need to spend at least a billion dollars to fix its drinking water system - including the replacement of more than half of all pipes - plus another billion for the sewer system. 

The latest version of the infrastructure bill - passed on a bipartisan basis in Congress - includes nowhere near that amount. State lawmakers will have the task of divvying up $459 million for water improvements across Mississippi. 

Still, if Jackson gets what officials believe they deserve, Lumumba said those funds can be transformative, allowing the City With Soul to at least stabilize and end its chronic state of crisis. 

"We're still in a state of emergency," the Democrat said, noting Jackson's vulnerability to another wholesale breakdown should adverse weather hit this winter.

         

But whether the state's leadership will want to devote serious resources to Jackson remains unclear. The governor, lieutenant governor and other top officials have all repeatedly suggested in comments to reportersthat the water problems in the overwhelmingly Democratic city are its own responsibility, and that the state has limited appetite to help. 

As Jackson residents suffered through weeks with no running water last February and March, Gov. Tate Reeves, R, advised that the city needed to do a better job "collecting their water bill payments before they start going and asking everyone else to pony up more money." 

Jackson, he has noted, is not alone in its need for resources. The state is, by many measures, the poorest in the nation.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, R, meanwhile, cited John Kane Ditto - Jackson's last White mayor - as a model for investing in necessary water and sewer repairs. "So what happened since then?" he asked in an implicit rebuke to successive mayors, all of whom have been Black. "The prime mover needs to be the city itself. Those people have to come up with a reasonable plan."

In private discussions about how the city could receive more state infrastructure assistance, Lumumba said Hosemann - who leads the state senate and has vast power over spending - has raised the thorny question of who should control the airport. It's a power the city possesses and the state has long coveted. To Lumumba, it's an unseemly suggestion - a quid pro quo, with essential needs in the balance.

"What does our airport have to do with our ability to provide water to our residents?" he asked.

Hosemann's office later clarified that he and the mayor had discussed the airport before storms knocked out water service citywide, but did not dispute the basic elements of Lumumba's account. After the storms, the city asked the state for $47 million to begin fixing its crippled water systems. Jackson got $3 million. The airport remains in city hands.

Reeves declined to be interviewed for this story, while Hosemann's office did not respond to requests for comment. 

To many Jackson residents, the state's seeming indifference to the plight of its capital can feel like a betrayal - one whose effects radiate far beyond city lines, holding back the entire state. 

"Louisiana is smart enough to know it needs a New Orleans. Georgia is smart enough to know it needs an Atlanta," said De'Keither Stamps, referencing two other majority Black cities that are the largest in their states. "Why has Mississippi not figured out that it needs a Jackson?"

         

Stamps is a former member of the city council, and now represents Jackson in the state legislature. An Iraq War veteran, he lives in the same neighborhood where he was raised and counts hundreds of relatives across the city. 

Jackson is home, but it is also, he well knows, a city where a mountain of accumulated neglect reveals itself through daily indignities - substandard public schools, potholed streets, the $1,400 bill he recently paid for water he won't even drink.

"It's rough to love Jackson," he said as he sat on his front porch one recent afternoon. "It ain't for the faint of heart."

As the latest example, he pointed to his next-door neighbor's yard, where city workers were seemingly at a loss as to how to stop the sewage bubbling from beneath Annie Bolden's front lawn.

"There's nothing we can do. We can't fix it," one announced sheepishly after an hour prodding the pipes. 

To Bolden, the whole episode was confirmation of something she had long feared: Her city - the one where she was born, where she had raised two boys, and where her boys were raising children of their own - was beyond hope. 

"Ten years ago, I wouldn't have said that. But I've seen a decline," the retired secretary said, surveying the wasteland of her carefully tended yard. "There's nothing good I can say about the city of Jackson. If you don't live here, don't come this way."

Historians trace Jackson's decline back further, to the White flight that followed the court-ordered integration of the city's schools in the 1960s. As Jackson's fortunes tumbled, much of the Black middle class also moved out. Today, approximately a quarter of the city lives below the federal poverty line.

The deterioration of the city's public water supply largely follows the arc of that decline, as local funds to maintain the system dried up, and the state and federal governments failed to fill the void. 

Although the problems with Jackson's water supply are extreme, they are not unique. Cities such as Newark, Detroit and Philadelphia - to name just a few - have experienced diminished water quality and reliability as their systems age.

"It's not just Jackson," said Mukesh Kumar, a professor of urban planning at Jackson State University and a former Jackson planning and development director. "In all of these places, people are recognizing that we have not invested in our enabling systems, and water is one of the major enabling systems. Without it, nothing else can happen." 

The depth of Jackson's vulnerability was laid bare in February when storms paralyzed the system for weeks. Screens at the filtration plants froze and pipes burst citywide, leading to prolonged outages - particularly in the city's poorest neighborhoods, many of which are furthest from the reservoir and have the weakest water pressure. 

"It impacted every facet of life. People's jobs shut down. They lost groceries. School was out, so kids didn't get meals," said Cassandra Welchlin, executive director of the Mississippi Black Women's Roundtable. "People were just trying to survive." 

Welchlin threw herself and her organization into trying to help, providing especially needy residents with hotel rooms, gift cards and child care. 

[In the U.S., Black, brown and poor people suffer the most from environmental contamination]

But even when the city's poor water quality is out of the headlines, the burden that it places on residents remains. 

         

         

Toya Lampkin, 43, said she's felt for decades that Jackson's water wasn't safe. Raising six kids, including two she recently adopted, she's never let them drink water out of the tap. 

"For me and basically everyone I know, it's just normal not to drink the water," she said. 

So she pays for it twice: once for the stuff that comes out of her tap, often discolored, and another for the cases of bottled water she has to lug home from the store. 

The latter costs $100 a month. The former is a wild card: The city's billing system is notoriously unreliable, with invoices seemingly drawn up at random and arriving irregularly. She was recently shocked to receive a bill that exceeds her savings - and which she has no immediate way of paying.

"It's rough. People are barely making it out here," said Lampkin, who works at a nonprofit while also studying for a master's degree. "I can't tell the kids that I can't afford their school stuff because I have to pay a $600 water bill."

Last year, Reeves vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have provided relief to poor residents with past-due water bills, deeming it "free money." State lawmakers have also torpedoed attempts by the city to raise infrastructure funds through a sales tax hike. And a city contract with Siemens to clean up the billing system failed spectacularly, with the city suing - and receiving a nearly $90 million settlement - after a botched attempt by the multinational giant that set efforts back by years.

After so many false starts, Lampkin said she thinks the city's only hope is outside assistance from the state, Congress or both. 

"We can't climb out of this hole ourselves," she said. "We're going to have to have some kind of help."

When and if it comes, Lumumba said the city will be ready, having long ago drawn up plans to begin to create a "a sustainable water infrastructure, a clean water infrastructure and an equitable water infrastructure." 

"We're not failing for a lack of planning," he said. "We're failing for a lack of resources."

In Bolden's case, the help finally arrived. After several unsuccessful visits, city workers were able to unclog the pipes and pump out the sewage that had accumulated for weeks in her yard. 

But life was not yet back to normal. 

Even after the ugly gash had disappeared, she said, the foul scent still lingered. 

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