Jackson, Miss., was awarded $115 million by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to upgrade its water system—the first round of funds for engineering and leak controls following a total halt last year in water distribution.

Ted Henifin, the city's federally appointed third-party water manager, said $15 million was already allocated for projects aimed at leak repairs. In announcing the new funding June 6, EPA said it would support “critical water infrastructure investments" for the Jackson Public Water System.

Work to be funded includes identifying and fixing leaks in the water distribution system, developing a system-wide assessment of valves and hydrants, ensuring adequate pumping capacity to maintain water pressure and distribution, and producing a system stabilization and sustainability plan, the agency said.

While the Mississippi capital has had water supply problems for decades, distribution halted last August. A water treatment plant stopped operating normally, relying on backup pumps after two main raw water pumps were damaged, ENR reported. Backup pumps also failed during flooding of the Pearl River. The combined problems caused a nearly complete loss of water pressure in and around Jackson. 

Top Priority: Fixing Leaks

Henifin, appointed last year by the U.S. Justice Dept. last year, said in a June 5 speech that the top priority is to repair Jackson's hundreds of water leaks that cause the city of about 150,000 to use 50 million gallons of water daily while comparably sized cities typically use 20 million gallons per day.

"We should not need more than 20 million gallons of water yet we're putting close to 50 into the system every day," he said. "We have leaks everywhere– big leaks we haven't even found," 

One large leak that was sealed recently lost 5 million gallons daily, he said. Ironically, the day before EPA announced its funding, Jackson discovered another massive leak in its downtown area.

Henifin pointed to the financial strain the water crisis is causing the city. Only 56% of its outstanding water bills are collected; the other 44% of water users are connected but do not have water accounts, he said.

The impact totals hundreds of millions of dollars, said Henifin.The city has approximately $280 million in outstanding debt, including an annual bond payment of $23 million.

Two Treatment Facilities

City officials said that with use of the EPA funding, Jackson hopes to shut down the more-than-century-old J.H. Fewell water treatment plant that serves the city. Leak repair will enable the city to close the plant and switch focus to the newer O.B. Curtis facility. 

Henifin said the Curtis plant is expected to meet city water needs when repairs are complete. 

The new EPA funds are part of a $600-million federal appropriation that Jackson received for water upgrades in the fiscal 2023 spending measure. The agency said the city could be eligible for additional federal dollars. 

City officials said a more detailed expenditure plan will be forthcoming.