A profound betrayal of trust’:
How a shrinking city, aging infrastructure and racism left thousands of Jacksonians without water for weeks.
by Anna Wolfe
First published: March 24, 2021
Janna Avalon, a 72-year-old retired newspaper editor, lived out the mid-February ice storm and weeks-long water outage just feet from South Jackson’s empty water tower.
The one million-gallon tank, one of several across the city, is meant to store water at a high elevation, utilizing gravity to pressurize the delivery system, especially during service interruptions.
But contingency plans are a myth in a system as chronically broken as Jackson’s.
So for the better part of the last month, Avalon and her husband Billy heaved buckets of water they retrieved from government tankers, kind neighbors or rainfall into their home to flush their toilet or wash dishes.
Most Jacksonians lost running water altogether after back-to-back winter storms the week of Feb. 14 stunned unprepared utilities across the Deep South, and the Avalons were some of the roughly 43,000 people whose taps remained dry for more than two weeks. City officials were still telling most residents, 82% of whom are Black, to boil their water a month later.
“Water is the most intimate relationship you have with the government … when the water is of poor quality or, in your case, just not delivered, it’s a profound betrayal of trust.”Manuel Teodoro, an associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
In the Avalons’ spacious backyard — beyond a wooden playset, garden and plum trees, plastic flamingos and decorative stone statues — the water tower adds its own charm. Avalon said it reflects colors in the evening sky, prolonging sunsets.
“It’s got all these great little attributes,” Avalon said, “except water.”
Avalon grew up in Jackson and has lived in her home, where she raised her five children, for 28 years. Despite ongoing utility hiccups, she’s intent on staying. She asks why she should have to move — and contribute to the city’s population decline of 20% since 1980 — to access basic human services. Why city and state government officials can’t or won’t improve conditions where she already lives. Why her water bills are unreliable, why nobody reads her water meter, and why there is a “huge city water tower in our backyard and there’s no water in it.”
The questions seem simple, but the answers are complex, and the dysfunction is causing a rift between Jacksonians and their leaders.
“Water is the most intimate relationship you have with the government,” said Manuel Teodoro, an associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “It comes into your house. You take it into your body. We put our children in it, and we prepare food with it. And when that fails — when the water is of poor quality or, in your case, just not delivered — it’s a profound betrayal of trust. And it shakes you to your core.”
Many Jacksonians lacked access to clean drinking water long before the most recent storm. In fact, on a good day, officials advise pregnant people and children under five not to drink from the tap, a phenomenon that’s been the case for the last five years.
“And most people in Jackson don’t even know,” Laurie Bertram Roberts, a longtime reproductive rights activist in Jackson and director of Alabama-based Yellowhammer Fund, told Mississippi Today during the recent outage. “The city and the state have done nothing to provide water to those populations. This whole time they should have been providing water for pregnant people and children under five. This whole time.”
And yet, when Jackson water customers do receive a bill (because consistent and accurate billing has also been a problem), they’re sometimes paying exorbitant amounts for water that’s unsafe to drink.Every city water bill notifies customers of the hazard of high lead levels first found in Jackson’s tap water in 2016, caused by recurring faulty water treatment techniques that remained unaddressed.
Only a year ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an emergency order stating that the city’s water system presented “imminent and substantial endangerment” to its customers and could contain E. Coli.
Water outages and the presence of harmful contaminants when the water does reach the tap are two different scenarios with unique sets of threats, but they both stem from decades of underinvestment and deferred maintenance within a dysfunctional and outdated water treatment and delivery system.
And the risks of scarce or dirty water exist more often in the homes of families who are already burdened by the ongoing pandemic, low wages, stagnant wealth, a lack of quality health care and racism.
The city is faced with two colliding but distinct funding problems: One, the city’s infrastructure is only getting older and past administrations did not plan for inevitable future capital investments, as is true in many aging cities. Two, the loss of customer base and pervasive billing troubles have left the water department without a feasible revenue model for regular operations and maintenance.
“This is like a triple or quadruple whammy, what’s going on,” said Alan Mallach, senior fellow at D.C.-based Center for Community Progress. “One layer is the fact that older cities — completely leaving aside race, poverty, all that — are at a disadvantage to young cities.”
“Then you get the second layer,” Mallach continued. “You have this whole phenomenon which has been going on really since the 1950s, where older cities, central cities, have essentially been abandoned by large parts of the middle class, especially the white middle class, for the suburbs.”
Winter storms in past years — 1989, 1994, 2010, 2014 and most recently 2018 — have tested the city’s outdated water delivery system and caused widespread water main breaks and outages. Each time, the city has scrambled to make band-aid repairs, only to wait until the next catastrophe. Jackson isn’t alone in taking this approach, said Teodoro, the Wisconsin professor.
“The nature of local politics is that city governments will tend to neglect utilities until they break because they’re literally buried,” he said. “One of the things that is a perennial challenge for governments that operate water systems is that the quality of the water system is very hard for people to observe. But the price is very easy for them to observe.”
Not even EPA orders — including a decade-old consent decree over the city’s wastewater system that continues to release raw sewage into the Pearl River — have resulted in much meaningful action. City water and sewer systems are not like corporations, Teodoro said; the authorities can’t just take their license away. And imposing large fines only punishes the taxpayers they are supposed to be protecting. “In the end, there’s very little you can do,” Teodoro said of regulators.
“They just want to keep on letting stuff break until we break and go away. That’s what it feels like.”Laurie Bertram Roberts, a longtime reproductive rights activist in Jackson and director of Alabama-based Yellowhammer Fund
This year, Jackson officials said, issues were particularly pronounced at the water treatment plants, which are not enclosed and protected from the elements like plants typically are up north.
Jackson Public Works Director Charles Williams told the media that the screens through which water from the reservoir is filtered had frozen, rendering the plant incapable of taking in water, causing pressure to drop across the system. Operators didn’t discover the issue until the weekend after the storms. They also encountered malfunctioning raw water pumps.
Also, the 10 million gallon basins where filtered reservoir water is stored before it is chemically treated contained two feet of sludge due to an overdose in chemicals that occured over time when water wasn’t coming in — a possible human error, Williams said. The city took two basins offline to clean them the week after the storm and cleaned the third a couple weeks later.
In addition to needed equipment upgrades, the city is sorely lacking the personnel needed to operate the plant in its current condition. City officials rely on these operators to notify them of an event, such as sludge build up, that they need to address. Jackson employs three high-level operators at each of its water treatment plants, when each facility really needs six of these top officials, Williams told Mississippi Today. In 2018, there were 60 unfilled positions in Public Works, Clarion Ledger reported
“You have to maintain what you have until you’re able to make improvements,” Williams said. “But once again, you have to have funding.”
Two generations of white and wealth flight out of Jackson has reduced the built-in revenue that officials say the water system needs just to maintain full operations, including hiring personnel — let alone to make a dent in an estimated $1 billion worth of needed upgrades.
The city’s bungled attempt to revamp its water meter and billing system through a $90 million contract with German-based manufacturer Siemens only worsened the water department’s cash flow — not to mention public confidence — while any outside investment in the capital city has come at a crawl.
“And we all know why,” Roberts, the activist, said. “Nobody wants to invest in Jackson because of who runs Jackson and who lives in Jackson. Because white folks don’t dominate here anymore. They just want to keep on letting stuff break until we break and go away. That’s what it feels like.”
With a population that’s 82% African American, Jackson is the single Blackest large city in the nation. Roughly 1-in-4 residents live in poverty, and in some west and south Jackson communities, the hardest hit by water outages, the average household pulls an income of $25,000 and as low as $15,000 in some pockets.
The capital city has lost roughly 40,000 residents since the population peaked at about 200,000 in 1980, after an initial wave of white residents left to avoid putting their children in integrated schools. Half of the decline occurred in the last two decades as more middle-class Black families moved, and the city’s white population continued to drop from 52% in 1980 to 28% in 2000 to 17% in 2019, according to U.S. Census data.
As the customer base declines, the system might clean and pump out less water, but the same infrastructure remains under the surface of Jackson’s 111 square miles, an area geographically larger than Seattle, Baltimore or Cincinnati. Parts of Jackson’s 1,500 miles of water mains are over 100 years old.
Of course, pipes under streets in front of abandoned properties — about 4000 by one 2019 count — still require maintenance.
At the same time, family resources are diminishing with inflation. Household buying power fell just slightly in the 1980s and was relatively stable through the 1990s. But since 2000, the annual median household income in Jackson has dropped about $6,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars, a roughly 15% decrease, according to a Mississippi Today analysis of Census data.
“We are a city with very high levels of poverty, and it’s difficult for us to raise the rates enough to do large scale replacement type projects and not make it unaffordable to live in the city of Jackson,” said former city councilman Melvin Priester Jr.
Yet the cost of Jackson’s poor quality water is still passed on to families who don’t trust the tap and purchase bottled water — which can cost a family of four $50-$100 a month — to drink instead.
“These would be hard problems, but we could solve them if it wasn’t for racism.”Manuel Teodoro, an associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs and Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
The city raised water rates in 2013, but the Siemens deal penned the same year came with an onslaught of problems, including the installation of faulty water meters and meters that measured water in gallons instead of the correct cubic feet. This made any benefits of the rate increase virtually impossible to see.
The results have been nonsensical. Over the past several years, the city has mailed exorbitant bills to some customers and none to others. Sometimes, the charges weren’t based on how much water a household used and other times, city officials advised residents to “pay what they think they own” Past officials said the city lacked the manpower and expertise in the billing department to manually rectify the account issues with any speed.
In trying to protect people during the persistent billing blunders, the city has at times instituted no-shutoff policies, which demonstrate compassion but haven’t helped to compel payment.
Today, more than 8,000 customers, or nearly one-sixth of the city’s customer base, still aren’t receiving bills. Nearly 16,000 customers owe more than $100 or are more than 90 days past due, a city spokesperson told Mississippi Today. Jackson water customers owe a total of $90.3 million.
As a result, the city continues to miss out on tens of millions of water revenues. In 2016, when officials first uncovered the issue, the city’s actual water sewer collections during the previous year was a startling 32% less than projected — a roughly $26 million shortfall.
It’s a vicious cycle: revenue shortfalls make it harder for the city to purchase upgrades or hire the personnel needed to properly manage the billing system; the billing inaccuracies and sloppy accounting encourage a culture of nonpayment; the unpaid bills just further tank the revenue.
Frustration only grows as residents are expected to pay for subpar service within a utility that’s already largely taken for granted.
The city received just under $60 million out of last year’s $90 million Siemens settlement, about $33 million of which is restricted in reserves or bond covenants. Another $12.6 million went to repay the general fund, leaving about $14 million for emergency sewer repairs and a new billing system.
Lawyers got the rest — a little more than $30 million.
The story of Jackson’s failing infrastructure, national experts say, could just as easily describe the scenario in other major cities like Detroit, Toledo or Kansas City, whose leaders have had to look outside their own budgets to solve major crises.
A city rests within a state, after all, and decisions made at the state level and the impact those decisions have on the economy and public services affect what a city is able to accomplish.
“It’s really disingenuous to look at the politics and policies of any one American city in isolation from the state context in which it exists,” Teodoro said.
The residents who left Jackson in the late 20th century fled to surrounding suburbs such as Rankin County, the wealthier Republican bastion that produced many of Mississippi’s most powerful politicians, including Gov. Tate Reeves.
Less than a year ago, Reeves vetoed bipartisan legislation that would have provided relief to poor Jacksonians with past due water bills and propped up the city’s bond rating, a proposal he suggested perpetuated a “‘free money’ concept,” Clarion Ledger reported.
A similar bill which would apply to all municipalities, is making its way through the Legislature this session. Lawmakers also killed a bill to assist Jackson with infrastructure bonds, but it still has a chance to pass legislation that would allow the city to propose its own sales tax increase to pay for water system improvements.
Meanwhile, Speaker Philip Gunn, another top lawmaker who lives in a Jackson suburb, spent the session trying to pass tax reform that would have actually increased the tax burden on the bottom 60% of the state’s income earners, according to one study, acc while significantly cutting the taxes of the richest residents.
The city is also still fighting the state’s 2016 attempt to wrest control of Jackson’s airport. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said during a recent Mayoral debate, that during a conversation with Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, the state Senate leader who lives in the white pocket of northeast Jackson, the lieutenant governor asked the mayor to “give me my airport” in exchange for infrastructure funding.
This ongoing tension is the backdrop for the city’s current crisis.
Academics who have studied government water systems recommend they regionalize in order to spread costs among struggling cities and more affluent suburbs. There’s just one recurring hitch to securing such an agreement: “Racism makes all of this so much harder,” Teodoro said.
“These would be hard problems, but we could solve them if it wasn’t for racism.”
The history of racial conflict, Teodoro explained, creates a scenario where Black residents of the city fear losing control of their services to the same people who have systematically oppressed them. And white residents of the suburbs, who chalk the city’s problems up to incompetence, don’t feel responsible to help.
In the Jackson metro, not only is regionalization a tough sell, there are examples of the opposite happening. West Rankin Utility Authority recently splintered off to build its own wastewater treatment facility to become independent from Jackson’s Savannah Street Wastewater Treatment Plant.
It’s twofold: Systemic racism is an unmistakable underlying cause for Jackson’s stripped resources, and while it may be clouded by a mutual distrust today, racism continues to prevent future investment.
For Avalon, a white woman, understanding the decline of her majority-Black community is as easy as pointing to the state’s refusal to fully fund education or expand Medicaid.
“Racism is everywhere,” Avalon said. “We need to recognize what we’re talking about. If my kid goes to public school that’s not up to par, why? We’re all paying taxes.”
The storage tank on Avalon’s street wasn’t full of water, Williams explained, because as the system loses pressure on an ongoing basis, not just during storms, the tower is constantly drained to make up for the deficiencies. He said he didn’t know if that tank had ever been full.
South Jackson often bears the brunt of water crises because the area is one of the furthest away from the treatment plant, so water takes longer to travel there. What little water would have been inside the tower at the time of the storm was used up immediately by some of the roughly 70,000 people who live in South Jackson.
That’s a convenient explanation for Avalon, who says her community is always last to receive attention on a variety of issues. “We’ve been putting up with that stuff all my life in south Jackson,” she said.
Jackson City Councilman De’Keither Stamps pushed the council to ask the state for $60 million, in addition to an initial $47 million proposal, to build new water storage towers in South Jackson and Byram to build up capacity in those areas.
“You shouldn’t have to live your life in fear of the plant going down,” Stamps said. “You should have enough capacity within a short distance from your house to maintain yourself.”
On March 1, just as water was starting to trickle out of her tap, Avalon stood on her back porch as it rained and looked out at the empty water reservoir that engulfs the skyline. City contractors had just come out a few years ago to repaint its dingy exterior, she recalled. Some 100 feet up, a large black fowl crouched on top of the massive steel structure stamped with the City of Jackson seal.
“If they’re vultures, gosh, that’s a terrible omen,” she said with a chuckle.
Water pressure in the Avalon home fell again in the following days as city officials discovered the facility’s intake filters were clogged with clams, mussels, tree branches and other items and had to take the systems offline. The Avalons had to shut off their water again the following weekend because of a broken pipe on their property. They’ll expect outages to continue.
“It keeps coming back and slapping us in the face, and we can’t do anything about it,” Avalon said.