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‘Through the Cracks’: Inside the fight to fix Jackson’s Water Crisis


(JACKSON, Miss.) — The ongoing water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, has reluctantly become a new normal for Glenda Barner and her family.

“I do not trust the water. I do not drink it. I haven’t drunk that water in years. I always have bottled water for me to drink,” Barner, 69, told ABC News.

Mississippi’s capital city has had more than 300 notices in the last two years that require residents to boil water before using it, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, leaving residents without easy access to clean water for days and sometimes weeks at a time.

Experts and local leaders blame historic divestment, poor infrastructure and extreme weather for the exacerbated crisis. Complications with the city’s water plant and distribution system often cause low water pressure and bacterial water contamination.

Barner, a grandmother of seven, says she often has to prepare meals for her entire family using bottled water, going through two to three cases for just one meal.

“There are days when you sit and just say, ‘we shouldn’t have to go through this.’ And I think about it not just for myself, but as a city. We shouldn’t have to go through this. We really shouldn’t. But, what can we do? We rely on our officials to do what they need to do to fix it and it’s not getting done.”

Tonight, on ABC News Live Prime with Linsey Davis, the streaming evening newscast at 7 p.m. ET, Senior Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott embarks on a new series, “Through the Cracks,” to follow the money on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The federal legislation was signed into law in 2021 to repair failing infrastructure across the country.

When President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on August 10, 2021, he vowed to address infrastructure woes in historically disadvantaged communities, specifically naming Jackson in his address. “Never again can we allow what happened in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi. We can never let it happen again,” Biden said.

Since then, the Biden administration has awarded billions in funding for more than 7,000 road, bridge and clean water projects across the country, many of which he has touted on the tour during the launch of recent projects in major cities.

In 2022, Mississippi received $459 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill to address water infrastructure directly, but ABC News has learned that city leaders in Jackson did not apply for funding for clean water projects in 2022. They applied this year.

Jackson is expected to receive one of the largest federal investments for water infrastructure in the country, according to White House officials. Barner expressed her frustration with not being able to see the impact of those investments since the law was enacted over a year ago.

“You depend on your city, your state government to help you in times like this. But they’re having infighting over the politics of it,” Barner told ABC News. “They say they’re allocating money. Where’s the money? Who’s spending the money? What’s the money being spent?” Barner continued.

Tracking the Money

The water crisis in Jackson didn’t happen overnight.

There have been years of finger pointing. City Democratic leaders say state Republicans have left behind a capital city – where over 80 percent of the residents are Black and a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba told ABC News the challenges for state and city leaders to work together are “deeply rooted.”

“There is a lot of not only partisan divide, there’s racial or environmental injustice at play. And this hasn’t just been our reality in the middle of the water crisis. This is our reality each and every day in Jackson, Mississippi,” Lumumba told ABC News.

“It’s not only one that is based on a blue city and a red state, not only based on a predominantly Black city through leadership that does not look like the city from the state level, but it’s also the rural versus urban divide that we have in Mississippi.”

Republican leaders have pushed back against claims of racial injustice. Gov. Tate Reeves has accused city leaders of failing to devise a clear plan to address the water system.

The partisan stalemate has contributed to the delay of federal infrastructure law funding allocations for Jackson’s aging water system.

The EPA recently launched an investigation looking into whether state officials discriminated against Jackson based on race. Reeves denies those allegations.

The state is expected to submit a plan to the EPA for how that federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law money will be spent. The agency is mandating that nearly 50% of its funding goes to disadvantaged communities like Jackson.

“You also have the EPA administrator that has the ability to hold all parties accountable if they don’t cooperate, to ensure that we find a solution for the people of Jackson,” Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told Scott.

“All of us have to focus on the solution,” Regan said.

Even without the money from the infrastructure bill – the city of Jackson is still receiving more than $814 million from federal funding through EPA grants, The American Rescue Plan and Congressional Omnibus Funding.

Ted Henifin, a federally appointed third-party manager of the Jackson water system, is in charge of figuring out where that goes.

In his newly released financial plan obtained by ABC News, Henifin lays out how he intends to fix the city’s water distribution system and create investments that could make Jackson’s water system financially self-sustainable.

The plan spans 20 years, though some improvements will be seen in the first five.

“We can’t do it any faster. We’re doing the best with the resources we have, but we need more patience,” Henifin told Scott.

Residents are where they have been for years – waiting for something to change and still keeping hope that one day avoiding tap water will not be a way of life.

“You just have to keep a positive attitude and say it is going to get better and you keep hoping it’s going to get better,” Barner said, “ This is bipartisan. This isn’t Black, white, red, yellow, Democrat, Republican. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about people having clean drinking water.”

ABC News’ Gabriella Abdul-Hakim and Meghan Mistry contributed to this report.

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