The recent boiling water notice for Jackson, Miss., was lifted late last week. But the heavier lifting is just beginning.
In late August, a series of storms swelled the Pearl River and flooded the OB Curtis Water Plant, which treats most of Jackson’s drinking water. The aging, understaffed facility was unable to handle the water inflow, reducing the amount of clean water being distributed. This resulted in lower system pressure and eventual loss of usable water across the city. The flood had not even been just as bad as officials had feared in the days before the storms. But it exposed a slowly growing disaster in the Mississippi capital.
Jackson was already under a water boiling recommendation when the flooding began. It was the second time in two years that a storm had deserted the town’s residents without drinking water for weeks at a time. The city — population 160,000, 82.5 percent black, with a quarter living below the poverty line — had lost its tax base for years and struggled to pay for major maintenance and infrastructure improvements. Open conflict occasionally erupted between Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a black Democrat, and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a white Republican. In the days after the recent crisis began, world leaders seemed to be suggesting that long-term management of Jackson’s water system should not be left to local leaders to administer.
Among the options those in charge have been discussing is selling or leasing the water system to a private company — a trend in the utility industry that has ebbed and flowed over the years. “Privatization is on the table,” Reeves said said at a press conference on September 5. But is that a likely outcome? And how would that affect local residents?
Recovery plan is a “moving target”
Both local and state leaders have recognized that Jackson’s water system requires capital investments on the order of $1 billion or more. But sorting out the full extent of what needs to be fixed is “a bit of a moving target,” Lumumba said Govern in an interview last week. The mayor has dismissed suggestions that the city has no plan for the system Release of several plans to the mediaincluding one capital improvement plan that he says it commissioned hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Lumumba said the city is currently receiving help from a variety of parties — including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers and professional mutual aid networks — to compile a list of necessary fixes. Lumumba says he recently requested a dashboard of actions needed to shore up the system, from “emergency fixes” to long-term capital improvements.
Jackson currently owns his water system, and Lumumba notes that residents have it voted for an increase their own taxes to pay for infrastructure upgrades in the past. The town tried again after the last big crisis in 2021, it was with special needs by state legislatures. His call for $46 million in government funding for improvements was also present denied last year.
“Our residents are not afraid of common sacrifices,” says Lumumba. “They only want solutions that make sense to them.”
Shrinking investments, different effects
In the past, the federal government assumed a much larger share of the costs for maintaining the water infrastructure. But it’s been shrinking for nearly half a century, says Mami Hara, CEO of the US Water Alliance, a nonprofit group based in Washington, DC. Addressing the backlog of critical repairs to the national water infrastructure requires “increasing and continued investment” from the federal government, Hara said in an email. The US Water Alliance and the American Society of Civil Engineers have estimated an average annual gap of US$81 billion between water infrastructure spending and demand. The Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden last year sees some of the largest investments in water infrastructure in generations, but still falls far short of estimated needs — about $55 billion over five years, Hara said.
The need for water infrastructure is a national problem. But they’re particularly acute in poor cities like Jackson, and tend to have worse impacts — in terms of water quality, reliability and affordability — in black communities and other communities of color.
“These disparities are often due to uneven investment in water infrastructure,” says Hara. “Drinking water systems that serve resource-poor communities tend to have less revenue and less access to capital to fund projects. Infrastructure deteriorates without investment in maintenance, reducing water quality and threatening public health.”
What would a private company do?
Private companies tend to charge residents more for water. In a recent study of 500 water systems, researchers from Cornell University and the University of Pittsburgh found found that privatization was specifically associated with higher bills and lower affordability for local taxpayers. That’s partly because private companies make a profit on top of the system’s operating costs, researchers say. One of the risks of privatization is that a company looking for profit would not devote the maximum of resources to the water system, says Marcela González Rivas, associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. the co-authored the study.
“All systems require a lot of investment, and for that reason it is not compatible with affordable tariffs if you use people who make a profit from them,” says González Rivas.
Lumumba says Jackson needs outside help and that he tried to negotiate an O&M contract with a private company (which he declined to name), but the negotiations were scuttled by the state speaking to the same company. The city is “well placed to produce these [third-party] agreements and retain ownership of the water system,” says Lumumba. But the state may be trying to take control of the system, turn it over to a private company, or regionalize the water agency to share costs and revenues with surrounding communities. (When asked if the governor was actively considering privatizing the system, a spokesman said, “All the options are on the table and we’re evaluating their strengths and weaknesses.)
“Privatization is the worst possible solution,” says Lumumba. “With the degree of capital improvement Jackson’s waterworks require, [a private company] would have to get a really, really hefty pound of flesh from our residents to make the profit they want to make from the system. For a city where affordability is already a major challenge, this would essentially drag our citizens from one state of misery to the next.”
It can be a moot point. According to Christopher Franklin, CEO of Essential Utilities, one of the largest water utilities in the US, it is “not possible” for a private company to run a system like Jackson’s with maintenance deferred for so long. Franklin, whose company is about to go bust a failed deal Acquiring a major water utility near Philadelphia acknowledges that private water companies tend to have higher rates. But he says what anti-privatization advocates call profiteering is actually just the basic economics of running a solvent utility. There is no economy in Jackson.
“There are limits to private enterprise,” says Franklin. “The amount of capital needed, the amount of rate hikes needed [to cover it] and then being able to pay in Jackson, Miss., makes it very difficult to forget about profit – to only talk about breakeven.
maintaining public scrutiny
Jackson won’t be able to bear the cost of upgrading his water system alone. And it “is utterly unfair for small communities and historically underserved communities of any size to shoulder the burden of plugging gaps and associated system costs,” says Hara of the US Water Alliance. But even if all of the capital investments were covered by the federal government and work was completed quickly, Jackson might still struggle to pay the operating costs of a modern water system without charging more than its residents can afford.
“Poor or shrinking cities need subsidies,” says Mildred Warner, a professor of urban planning at Cornell University who co-authored the study on privatization and affordability. “You just do it.”
In Jackson, ordinary people have helped each other carry the burden of life without clean running water. groups like collaboration jackson have received support from across the country and have helped distribute bottled water to communities in need. For Kali Akuno, a co-founder of the group, the influx of support was both encouraging and discouraging.
“For me, it really shows that solidarity in this particular form has limits,” says Akuno. “Despite what has come in, what is still coming in, it cannot and cannot meet everyone’s needs. It’s just not designed for that.”
While the recent boiling water notice has been lifted, Akuno residents expect water crises will be “a regular aspect of our life in the city”. However, that doesn’t mean they should be expected to relinquish control of their water system. He doesn’t expect a private company to actually take over the water board, but the state is using the threat as a political tool.
“The bottom line is that private companies are in it to make money, and there’s no money to be made in Jackson,” says Akuno. “The city is going to face a lot of challenges and I’m afraid if we don’t get on top of that soon and get some resources, Jackson will continue to shrink very quickly.”