Federal officials appointed an independent manager to stabilize the beleaguered Jackson, Miss., drinking water system, saying the city has failed to provide reliable water service. The move follows its water crisis that left 160,000 people—the population of Jackson—with unreliably low water pressure, if any water at all, for days this summer.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba estimates a $1-billion to $2-billion cost to fix all of the water system problems in the city. 

Officials have named as interim manager Edward “Ted” Henifin, a registered professional engineer and senior fellow at the nonprofit U.S. Water Alliance, where he works on its equitable infrastructure initiative. Henifin participated in the “unified command” set up to address Jackson’s water crisis, providing city employees with on-the-ground technical assistance and advice on immediate and longer-term plans, according to a government court filing. He was previously the general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District in Virginia from 2006 until February 2022.

Jackson-based U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate signed an order to appoint an interim third-party manager for the city's drinking water system Nov. 29 at the request of the U.S. Justice Dept. and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The motion was unopposed by the city or Mississippi State Dept. of Health. Lumumba said in a statement that he is "pleased" to have reached this step in providing immediate and long-term solutions for the city's water issues. 

The federal government's court filing also includes a complaint alleging the city violated the Safe Drinking Water Act in its failure to reliably provide water to its residents and other system customers. Justice Dept. officials say they aim to negotiate a consent decree with the city and state to achieve compliance with the law and long term sustainability of the water system. 

Until that decree is in place, the interim manager would be responsible for operating and maintaining Jackson’s drinking water system, as well as overseeing a list of priority projects that include implementing corrosion controls at two treatment plants, winterizing the system and analyzing the city's aging distribution system, under the terms of the government’s proposal.

“Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege to spend time with people on the ground in Jackson – many who’ve struggled with access to safe and reliable water for years,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “I pledged that EPA would do everything in its power to ensure the people of Jackson have clean and dependable water, now and into the future. While there is much more work ahead, the Justice Dept.’s action marks a critical moment on the path to securing clean, safe water for Jackson residents.”

Henifin has already been tasked with some of the same responsibilities as an interim manager while serving as a loaned executive from the Water Alliance, but would be better positioned to address staffing, operations and maintenance as interim third-party manager, officials say in the court filing. His education and management experience would be useful on both technical and financial fronts, they add. Lumumba said Henifin "has been instrumental in lending his expertise to our recovery thus far."

"This agreement allows us to work collaboratively with someone we trust to make smart choices for the city's drinking water system and ensure that we can provide safe, clean and sustainable drinking water for all," Lumumba said.


Safe to Drink

On Nov. 22, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves formally ended the state of emergency that was declared over the water crisis. EPA has determined that water from the city’s two treatment facilities, the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant and J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plant, is safe to drink. 

It was the Curtis plant that went of fline in late August when pumps failed amid flooding. Emergency repairs have returned the plant to operation. But Jackson’s water problems go beyond the one plant. A boil-water notice had already been in place for about a month before the treatment plant failure.

EPA monitoring has shown Jackson struggling to meet lead and copper rule requirements. A February 2021 winter storm caused outages that lasted nearly five weeks in some parts of Jackson. The city’s system has experienced more than 7,300 line breaks since 2017, according to the federal complaint.

Areas where small-diameter cast iron pipe dating before 1910 have seen a particularly high number of breaks. Additionally, the city has issued more than 320 boil-water notices since May 2020. The time it takes to lift those notices has risen from an average of 3.1 days in 2020 to 3.6 days in 2021 and 3.9 days this year through Oct. 21. 

Lumumba has blamed a lack of resources and funding going back decades as the root of the system’s problems. Maintenance was deferred, and staffing shortages have persisted. 

Now, “urgent action” is needed to stabilize the system, government attorneys wrote in a court filing. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said during a Nov. 30 press conference that the DOJ's Office of Environmental Justice would continue to engage on the ground in Jackson and in other communities that have been historically underserved.

"Although environmental injustice can happen anywhere, communities of color, indigenous communities and low-income communities often bear the brunt of these harms," Garland said.