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‘A set of accumulated problems’: Why Jackson, Mississippi, is facing a water crisis

(JACKSON, Miss.) — Residents of Jackson, Mississippi, are facing a clean water shortage, days after Gov. Tate Reeves announced a major pump at the city’s main water treatment facility was damaged. The city’s mayor says the current water crisis is a result of years-long issues.

The damage to the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment plant happened after the city experienced a high level of flooding due to heavy rainfall over the last week, leaving the city without enough safe water for people to use.

The damaged facility resulted in a total loss or near-total loss of water pressure throughout Jackson and other areas in Hinds County that receive water from the plant.

A new pump arrived and was installed at the facility on Wednesday, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said. But Reeves said on the same day that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done on the plant and the boil water notice in the city will continue until further notice.

Record flooding over the weekend caused water to fill up the Barnett Reservoir in central Mississippi. Flooding crested on Monday when water levels were measured at a peak of 35.37 feet, just below the major flood stage of 36 feet. Water levels above 28 feet are considered flood stage. The water has since been receding.

On Monday, Reeves said the city is using backup pumps, but until the problem is fixed, residents will not have reliable running water and the city will not be able to produce enough water for serious needs, including fighting fires and flushing toilets. A second water treatment facility, J.H. Fewell, is also experiencing an insufficient number of certified operators, according to the Mississippi Department of Health’s emergency order.

According to Lumumba, the city has been experiencing “a constant state of emergency” for the last two years when it comes to its water supply. Even when there isn’t low water pressure or the city has not issued a boil water notice, the crisis continues, he said during a press briefing Tuesday.

“I have said on multiple occasions, that it’s not a matter of if our system would fail. But a matter of when our system will fail,” Lumumba said.

The Pearl River area in Jackson experienced severe flooding in 2020 when water levels crested at 36.67 feet.

Staffing shortages, system issues and numerous equipment failures have all contributed to the overall failure of the water plant, according to Lumumba.

“This is a set of accumulated problems based on deferred maintenance that has not taken place over decades,” Lumumba said.

In an interview on ABC News Live Tuesday, Lumumba said the current crisis stems from up to 30 years of deferred maintenance and a lack of capital improvements to the system.

“We’ve had hotter summers, colder winters and more precipitation each year and it’s taking a toll on our infrastructure. And so we need the support to not only create sustainability and equity in our system, but to also weatherize our system,” Lumumba said.

The current crisis happened because the facility was receiving flood water, that changed the overall composition of the water making it difficult to treat and potentially dangerous, he said. The plant therefore needed more time to treat the water, which is why residents were experiencing little water pressure and less water supply.

Officials are flushing bad water out of the system and attempting to do critical maintenance and emergency repairs, but Reeves warned Wednesday that there will be future interruptions, saying they are unavoidable at this point.

A chemical imbalance at the plant on Wednesday also forced officials to shut down part of the plant. While there were some improvements made, the plant is still facing an electrical and mechanical problem, Jim Craig, the director of health protection at the state’s Department of Health, said Wednesday.

Sludge at the bottom of the water basins at the plant is also a huge issue, Craig said.

To solve the ongoing crisis, Lumumba said that it could cost billions of dollars, “far beyond the city’s reach” to fix or replace the water plant. The city has put in millions of dollars already towards the system, but it will likely fall short, said the mayor. 

“The residents of Jackson are worthy. They are worthy of a dependable system, and we look forward to a coalition of the willing that will join us in the fight to improve this system that has been failing for decades,” said Lumumba on Tuesday. 

The governor has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. The state has set up water distribution sites to hand out drinkable and non-drinkable water to residents in the meantime, opening up seven new sites on Thursday.

Reeves also requested an emergency federal declaration for the water crisis, which was approved by President Joe Biden.

ABC News’ Ahmed Hemingway, Rahma Ahmed, William Gretsky, Victoria Arancio and Melissa Griffin contributed to this report

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