U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan met Sept. 7 with city and state state officials in Jackson, Miss., to take stock of the city's continuing water crisis, outlining plans to swiftly make funds available to repair its ailing O.B. Curtis drinking water treatment plant.
After meeting with officials, Regan told reporters that the state will receive more than $26 million in state revolving loan funds (SRF) in 2022, in addition to $30 million in 2021 SRF funding and $13 million already tasked specifically for Jackson to make necessary repairs to the system.
The city has been under a boil-water mandate since the 50 million-gallon-a-day water treatment plant went offline in late August as local flooding caused water pressures to drop precipitously. Some 180,000 people in Jackson—a large percentage of whom live below the poverty level—depend on the Ridgeland, Miss., treatment plant for drinking water.
“We believe there are even more resources that we can access but we do know that it will require all of us working together to cut through the bureaucracy, have open lines of communication and access these resources for the people of Jackson,” Regan said.
City and state leaders said the immediate situation at the plant is improving.
Water levels in the storage tanks are stable, and the amount of water being treated and produced at the facility continues to increase. At an afternoon press briefing, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) said, “As of at least an hour ago, we have addressed the quantity of water issue … we continue to work with the Department of Health in the city and other federal partners to address the quality of water so to hopefully get that boil-water notice lifted sooner rather than later.”
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (D) noted that the National Rural Water Association marshaled resources through its emergency response Mutual Aid Assistance Network to pay for tens of thousands of dollars in immediate repairs to the system over the past ten days.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also involved in the effort. Its Vicksburg District received a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mission assignment to perform pump assessments at the treatment plant on Sept. 1, and engineers remain on the scene.
Spotlight on Environmental Justice Concerns
The crisis underscores the dilemma many rural, often economically disadvantaged, communities face in maintaining utilities. Necessary maintenance is often deferred due to costs, and funding to make the long-term investments needed for system modernization rarely comes together without federal or state assistance.
Climate change is forcing water administrators across the country to “walk and chew gum” at the same time, Regan said. “We have to be able to look at the repairs that need to take place on a normal basis. But we also have to begin to make investments to ensure that we not only build functioning water systems, but that they are more resilient to the types of storms that we’re seeing as we move forward.”
Some of those additional resources will likely come through funding made available by the the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Regan said, noting that the state is to receive $400 million from the law over the next five years, including $72 million in fiscal 2022. But to access the funding, the city will have to have a plan, with specific projects and goals.
“The way the law is designed, over half of the resources that are allocated are allocated to disadvantaged communities that have similar characteristics of Jackson … We need to have applications in place from cities like Jackson to make them competitive for the historic investments,” Regan said.