‘A Rock Bottom Point for the City’: Life Without Water in Jackson

‘A Rock Bottom Point for the City’: Life Without Water in Jackson

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Water pressure is back in Mississippi’s capital but it’s still not safe to drink. Residents have been through this so many times that they’ve learned how to cope. That doesn’t mean they’re happy.

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Donated water arrives by the truckload at New Horizon Church International.

(photographs by Alan Greenblatt)

Ronnie Crudup Jr. keeps smiling. It’s surprising only because of the circumstances. Crudup represents parts of Jackson in the Mississippi House, which means he’s been starting his days at 4 a.m., answering calls and texts from constituents, meeting with state and federal authorities and generally just trying to make sure residents have access to water.

On Friday morning, he was directing traffic at New Horizon Church International, located in an old shopping plaza just off Interstate 20. About a dozen volunteers hand out cases of water, sanitizer and wipes to drivers who pull up in lines that stretched about 30 cars deep at any given time, including a red Dodge Nitro with the words “wash me” traced in the dirty rear window.

Crudup and his crew started the morning handing out cases donated by a church in Arkansas, then accepted delivery of several more pallets’ worth sent by the Canadian National Railway. Crudup himself has been showering at a family member’s house. He had water pressure by Friday, but no confidence that it was clean. But he’s grateful for all the help from volunteers and donors. “There’s no point to complain about it,” Crudup says. “We got to make it happen. Residents are counting on us to get water to them.”

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“I don’t think it’s clean, but I’ve got water,” says state Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr.

Around Jackson, there’s plenty of upset and aggravation, but also a kind of resilience that’s both inspiring and sad. Last week’s water cutoff drew national attention, but it was nothing new to residents who experience boil-water notices routinely and have had water shut off completely before. “We’re just used to it after all these water problems for years,” Crudup says. “We went through almost the exact same thing last year in February and March.”

In line at the church, Charles Crisler says the problem has been going on for years and he’s figured out how to keep himself clean and where to find enough water to get by. “It’s great so far,” he says. “We just don’t have no water pressure and no water.”

That morning, the city announced that showering’s OK, as long as you keep your mouth closed. About the distribution site itself, Crudup says getting it set up and operating was relatively easy, simply because they’ve had so much practice doing the same thing in the past. “This is not our first rodeo,” says Lauren McGraw, owner of Gotta Go, Mississippi’s largest supplier of port-a-potties and other site service rentals. “We’ve been through this plenty of times.”

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South Jackson residents quickly drew down the supply of water available at a site run by the nonprofit World Central Kitchen.

That level of unfortunate experience has drilled Jacksonians in the need to prepare. People stock up as best they can. Major institutions around town have their own water supplies, or are now making arrangements to divorce themselves from the city’s decrepit water system. “I have been buying water for years because there are so many water alerts,” says Pam Shaw, a political strategist in Jackson.

But not everyone is able to stock up and few people can go for days without having water pressure at all. The average American household consumes 300 gallons per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Water was restored throughout the city by Labor Day, but Jackson remains under a boil-water notice that’s been in effect since July 29. “We can’t have the children due to the likelihood of infections,” says Delores Suell, who owns two child-care centers in North Jackson that stayed shut last week.

Given the depth and longevity of the problem, there’s plenty of blame to go around, which tends to fall along racial lines. The city is 82 percent Black — the highest proportion of any sizable city in the country — and African American residents have long suspected they haven’t received much help from state leaders, at least until the current crisis, due to race. A number of white residents, by contrast, say they now have more confidence Jackson’s water problems will be addressed, with federal and state agencies on the job.

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Mississippi’s 1903 capitol building is undergoing a $4.7 million renovation, including drainage and sprinkler system updates.

Opinion is mixed among residents of both races when it comes to the future. Some people are more optimistic that the city’s aging water-treatment place will finally be updated, given increased help and attention from other levels of government. Some are more dubious, noting that a problem years in the making won’t be solved overnight. Right now, everyone is concentrating on making it through the immediate challenge as best they can.

“It is an amazing city and it has such great potential,” says Steven O’Neill, managing partner of Manship Wood Fired Kitchen. “But this is kind of a rock-bottom point for the city, and I really do feel that we’re going to be feeling the effects of this for five, 10, 15 years.”

Years in the Making

Jackson’s water problems are practically biblical. The recent shutdown happened when the treatment plant was overwhelmed due to flooding. Early in 2021, the water system was crippled by ice storms. It was only the latest of numerous instances when winter storms have led to outages and water main breaks. In November — on the same day EPA officials came to town to tout passage of the federal infrastructure bill — the plant temporarily closed due to problems with chemicals and faulty equipment.

“You know, my kids play sports and they need plenty of drinking water, and we have not been able to drink the water from the faucet or nothing like that,” says Erica, a South Jackson resident, while waiting to pick up water at the New Horizon church. “I’m a disabled person, so it’s hard for me to get this kind of stuff.”

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Dropping off a pallet of donated water at New Horizon.

Depending on who you ask, Jackson’s water problems date back years, or a decade, or many decades. The city has been under a consent decree with the EPA regarding its wastewater problems since 2012. Its infrastructure problems in general are readily apparent. There are roads around town that are bumpy and buckled enough to require frequent braking. In the area around Jackson State University, some homes are on the verge of collapse. A bit further south, along Terry Road, some lots have been vacant long enough that they’ve practically become reforested.

Last week, both public schools and Jackson State went virtual, due to the lack of clean water, or water period. “The school is doing a pretty good job of making sure that students are accommodated and comfortable,” says Erin Eatman, a Jackson State senior who remained in her dorm. “They’ve done a good job of making sure that we are not in unlivable conditions.”

The Jackson State school year had just started when classes went virtual again. There are still yard signs on campus advertising “move-in snacks.” Eatman says that the pandemic has left her generation accustomed to unexpected disruptions in their daily lives. In Jackson, that means dealing with the uncertainty of water. “It’s not just, you know, a leaky pipe somewhere,” she says. “It’s a billion-dollar infrastructure issue, and that’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of competent leadership.”

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Jackson State students remained in the dorms even as classes went virtual, with porta potties lined up outside.

Millsaps College, about three miles north of Jackson State, stayed open last week. In February, the college announced it would build its own water system, including a 100,000-gallon tower. Otis Kenner, who is president of the student body, is a New Orleans native who was 3 when Hurricane Katrina struck his hometown. He said his family didn’t know the extent of Jackson’s water problems when he enrolled, but says it’s been an ongoing problem throughout his campus career.

Kenner notes that native Jacksonians have had to cope for a much longer period of time, but he’s optimistic steps that should have been taken years ago will start happening now. In the meantime, making national news due to water problems won’t help Jackson attract talent, Crudup says. “It hurts the city, but it also hurts recruitment when it comes to colleges and universities,” he says. “People don’t want to send their kids to where they can’t get guaranteed water.”

Lower Sales, Higher Costs

Hours before the Iron Horse Grill opens for business, cooks and prep workers are using water. They need it to soak vegetables, to get steam rising out of warmers and, of course, to wash dishes. “It’s been awful, the inconsistencies of water,” says Andy Nesenson, the restaurant’s general manager. “I think we’ve had five water outages or boil-water notices in the past 18 months.”

The Iron Horse Grill is on the edge of Jackson’s downtown. That part of town had some water pressure on Friday, so Nesenson didn’t need to rent port-a-potties. But he said he’s bringing in 750 pounds of ice per day and spending $2,000 to $2,500 a week on bottled water, as well as having to switch from fountain sodas to canned drinks. With all the extra bottles and cans, trash pickups have become a daily occurrence.

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Chef Pierre Pryer prepares honey butter for diners at the Iron Horse Grill. Running a kitchen without clean running water is no easy task.

Even as expenses are increasing, sales are down. Way down. Sales for the Iron Horse Grill in August were 30 percent lower than August 2021, due to the boil-water notice. Its revenue was sliced in half last week. For restaurant owners who barely made it through the pandemic, the water crisis is like a recurring nightmare. “Yesterday, we got 650 gallons of tanked water set up in case we lose pressure again,” says O’Neill, the Manship owner. “You know, we’re a modern functioning capital city of a state in the United States, and that should not be the norm.”

Back on Aug. 8, Jackson restaurant owners gathered to hold a press conference calling on city and state leaders to put aside their differences to fix the water problem. At that point, Jackson had been under a boil-water notice for a little more than a week. “Jackson is so far out of its consent decree, we’re pretty close to a Flint, Mich., situation,” O’Neill says. “I’ve even heard rumors that the lawyers from Flint were here, building a class action. I hate that for our city.”

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A state capital shouldn’t be without water says Steven O’Neill, who’s brought in water for his Manship restaurant and has to shower at his girlfriend’s place.

Who Has Access to Water?

Baptist Medical Center still sports an oversized “Heroes Work Here” banner on the bridge connecting two of its buildings. The hospital hasn’t had to worry about water during the recent shortage, thanks to its own water tank, looming behind the cardiovascular center.

A few blocks away, the Mississippi Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center wasn’t so lucky. The large clinic went without water one day last week, or at least enough water for the toilets to flush. A couple of days later, there were two Rankin Rental port-a-potties and a handwashing station sitting outside by the entrance.

Steven Rankin, who owns the rental company, says it was fortunate that some construction sites — normally the mainstay of his business— shut down due to heavy rains, leaving him with enough units to meet the newfound demand from health-care providers, restaurants and other businesses. “This is kind of unprecedented,” he says.

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Baptist Medical Center has one of the private water towers that, out of necessity, have sprung up around Jackson.

Not every company struggled with water. Just down the street from Baptist, a new brew pub called Fertile Ground Beer Company made sure to have its own water supply on hand, as well as its own filtration system. But for many residents, just finding enough water to keep clean and hydrated has been a struggle. “We hardly have water to bathe with and cook with,” says South Jackson resident Gloria Locke. “Our water be brown. We can’t wash no dishes. This is ridiculous. This thing going on too, too long. Too long.”

With donated water arriving around the city, there are people who follow trucks in from the interstates to get to distribution points that will be newly restocked. The calendar says September, but the weather still says summer. Just standing around on 90-degree days is enough to make you sweat.

Now people are worried about rain in the forecast all through the coming weekend. They’re not sure the water system can handle it. A group of nonprofits known as the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition has been working with the city to identify seniors and other individuals needing assistance and then delivering water to their doors.

The city of Jackson has been having issues with water for a long, long time, says Mac Epps, a spokesman for the coalition. Its residents have learned how to deal with those issues, out of necessity. “African American people, those of the African diaspora, have a certain natural resiliency from things that have happened to us,” Epps says. “I grew up without running water for a large part of my life, so I know how to survive. I know what I can do and I know the things I need to take care of it.”

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40 liter bottles weigh more than 40 pounds, but once you’ve handled enough of them you can toss them around like footballs.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.

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