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Mississippi Goddamn: 5 facts about the Jackson water catastrophe

Updated: Sep 11, 2022

Can you imagine going two or three days without being able to take a hot shower? Wash your hair, your hands, give your pet water, make your baby a bottle, wash your dishes, brush your teeth? Most of us don’t go a day without doing these activities. Imagine going more than a week— or having to boil water in order to bathe your children. This is the norm in Jackson, Mississippi.

“I don’t feel like everyone can understand the mental anguish this is having on people,” says Tracy Miller, a Jackson resident.

For the last two years, residents have received boil water notices almost every single month. A boil water notice is issued by the city government when water is unsafe to drink, often times boiling water can help kill off anything harmful in the water. In Jackson these notices can last weeks, sometimes even longer than a month. They've been issued so frequently in Jackson residents say that when officials say the water is safe or restored they know it is only temporary. “This is a human rights issue and a public health issue because it is a basic human right to have clean water,” says Romona Taylor Williams, a Jackson resident.

Contrary to the dominant national narrative, this has been the reality of Jackson residents well before the flood in August 2022, and it’s linked to long standing racial inequities that have led to an economic crisis and a crumbling infrastructure. After spending several days on the ground, interviewing the Mayor, and being able to speak with the Governor, these are the 5 facts every American should know about the water catastrophe in Jackson:

1. Jackson’s water issues started years before the 2022 flood.

While the current water issues in Jackson are a result of an aging water system unable to sustain recent flooding, residents say poor water quality has been an ongoing issue. Multiple residents said that Jackson has had water issues for as long as they can remember, dating back decades. In 2010, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality issued the city a $240,000 fine and required it to improve conditions at its Savanna Street Wastewater Treatment Plant. In 2011, fines and a similar improvement order were issued for the city’s Presidential Hills Wastewater Treatment Plant. The next year, the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, fining the city $437,916 for violations of the Clean Water Act. According to the EPA “Jackson’s alleged violations include over 2,300 sanitary sewer overflows, prohibited bypasses, operation and maintenance failures, and effluent limit violations.” In February 2020 a winter storm caused equipment at the O.B. Curtis water plant to freeze leaving residents in some parts of Southern Jackson without water for up to seven weeks. In recent years water plant complications have been the result of extreme environmental conditions (freezing temperatures, flooding and excessive heat) and have broken down an already fragile waste water system. But when asked how the State's advancing its infrastructure to withstand climate change, Governor Reeves dismissed concerns stating that “those are just political buzzwords.”

2. The water quality is worse than what’s being reported.

Hundreds of children are named in a lawsuit against the city of Jackson alleging that the current and former administration have been complicit in the children’s exposure to lead. The lawsuit by New York law firm Levy Konigsberg also names the current and former directors of Jackson Public Works, the Mississippi Department of Health and Triology engineering services. The lawsuit states that children were poisoned by consuming water contaminated with lead as a result of the defendants “deliberate indifference.” While press conferences held by the Governor and press releases issued by the Mayor address the water pressure issues and address poor water quality, no officials are being transparent about the current quality of the water— meaning the boil water notices don’t identify which kinds of bacteria or other contaminants are in the water. In 2015, test results showed lead levels in the distribution system water above the action level. Additionally, a routine inspection conducted in November 2016 by Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) found inadequate application of treatment chemicals due to a failing corrosion control system at the O. B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. This information is included in an advisory notice to residents on the city of Jackson’s homepage. The EPA required City officials to correct these deficiencies; however, during monitoring periods in 2018 to 2022, they failed to consistently meet treatment technique requirements for the water system which resulted in another violation of the Lead and Copper Rule and a requirement of the City’s Optimized Corrosion Control Plan.

3. The only thing in the way of a permanent solution is politics.

There is substantial evidence of division between State and local political leaders who appear to be involved in a power struggle - a battle that’s been ongoing through multiple administrations. Governor Tate Reeves, a white republican, explicitly stated in a press conference on Monday, September 5 that he had no intention of working together with the Jackson mayor, a Black democrat. Governor Reeves is currently involved in multiple lawsuits including one where he is vying for control of the Jackson airport which is owned and operated by the city of Jackson, and another where he is accused of being involved in stealing millions of dollars in TANF funds for families in poverty. The State is also named as a co-plaintiff in the claim that was brought against the city of Jackson by the United States Government Environmental Protection Agency. The Governor has said that he will allocate up to $90 million dollars in federal AARPA funds but this money is contingent on a 1:1 dollar match from the city of Jackson. Council Member Aaron Banks said that the match requirement is holding the city back from being able to access much needed funding to repair the city’s water infrastructure. “The federal government should prohibit a match requirement for federal dollars