Mississippi’s capital city lacks enough water pressure to fight fires, flush toilets and meet other critical needs because its main water treatment facility began failing Monday, the governor said — a problem officials blame on longstanding water system problems and this week’s river flooding.
The state is declaring an emergency for Jackson as it scrambles to begin distributing drinking and non-drinking water to up to 180,000 city residents, Gov. Tate Reeves said Monday evening. The National Guard is being called in to help distribute the water as crews work to get the water treatment plant back online, state officials said.
Explanations for the failing system are complicated: Damage this summer to pumps at the main water treatment facility made failure almost inevitable, the governor says; and flooding of the Pearl River after heavy rains last week affected treatment processes and therefore the amount of running water the system can provide, Jackson’s mayor said.
“It means we do not have reliable running water at scale. It means the city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets and to meet other critical needs,” Reeves said.
The trouble comes as the city already was under a boil water notice since late July for what the state says was a water-quality issue.
Because of Monday’s failure, officials announced all Jackson public schools will shift to virtual learning Tuesday.
“Please stay safe. Do not drink the water. In too many cases, it is raw water from the reservoir being pushed through the pipes,” Reeves told Jackson residents Monday. “Be smart, protect yourself, protect your family.”
Residents are being told to conserve the water resources they do have and boil any water they use for three minutes.
The state is “surging our resources to the city’s water treatment facility and beginning emergency maintenance, repairs and improvements,” Reeves said, adding, “We will do everything in our power to restore water pressure and get water flowing back to the people of Jackson.”
Besides preparing to distribute water to residents, the state is setting up a tanker system to provide water for fire trucks as Jackson loses the ability to take water from fire hydrants, officials said.
Water for those in the state’s most populous city would have to be provided “for an unknown period of time,” Reeves said. The water shortage is expected to last “the next couple of days,” the office of Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said.
Problems plague water system for years
Jackson’s water system has been plagued with issues for years. In February 2021, a winter storm shut down Jackson’s entire water system, leaving tens of thousands of residents without water for a month amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Jackson’s residents have been under some sort of boil water notice or advisory several times since that 2021 winter storm, including the state-ordered notice posted in July.
The problem this week stems from one of two water treatment facilities in the city, the O.B. Curtis plant, which is run by the city of Jackson, according to the governor.
The main pumps at O.B. Curtis recently were severely damaged, and the facility began operating on smaller backup pumps about a month ago, around the same time a prolonged boil water notice began, the governor said.
The governor said he was told Friday that “it was a near certainty that Jackson would fail to produce running water sometime in the next several weeks or months if something did not materially improve,” the governor said.
Over the weekend, state officials started developing water distribution plans and “preparing for a scenario where Jackson would be without running water for an extended period.”
“All of this was with the prayer that we would have more time before their system ran to failure,” Reeves said. “Unfortunately, that failure appears to have begun today.”
Jackson’s mayor — while also emphasizing longstanding problems in the water system — pointed to recent flooding from the Pearl River as the event that triggered the latest water pressure issues.
Because O.B. Curtis received additional water from the reservoir during the flooding from last week to this week, the facility had to change the way it treats the water, which has led to the reduction of water being put out into the system and reduced tank levels. This is affecting the water pressure at residents’ homes, he said.
“As one crisis may be diverted, another one rears its head,” Lumumba said during a news conference after addressing the flooding in the city.
O.B. Curtis is meant to provide about 50 million gallons for the city daily. The other plant, which usually provides about 20 million gallons daily, has been approved to ramp up its output amid the shortage, authorities said.
Neglect and lack of political will blamed
Lumumba declared a water system emergency Monday. The proclamation noted not only the flooding but also numerous previous “unsuccessful attempts to rectify water system issues.”
Jackson’s ongoing water system problems already had some residents reporting low to no water pressure and raw sewage flowing in city streets and neighborhoods.
This month’s Pearl River flooding led to standing water on some streets and prompted Lumumba days ago to urge residents to evacuate flood-prone areas.
Though the Jackson area has seen little rain in the past few days after downpours last week, the Pearl River crested Monday morning just below major flood stage, according to the National Weather Service.
Lumumba previously told CNN a lack of political will and years of neglect on a national level has prevented Jackson from getting the help it needs to fix its water and sewer crisis. Besides the infrastructure issues, the plant has also been faced with staffing issues, according to the mayor and governor.
“A far too small number of heroic frontline workers were trying their hardest to hold the system together, but that it was a near impossibility,” the governor said.