Jackson, Miss., loses water service amid flooding; state to distribute water

Published: Aug. 30, 2022 at 5:37 AM PDT|Updated: Aug. 30, 2022 at 9:49 AM PDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT/Gray News) - The state is stepping in to help as Jackson’s water system is teetering on collapse.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and National Guard will set up distribution sites to provide potable and non-potable water to residents, while Hinds County Emergency Operations had secured water to ensure the fire department could continue to operate when needed.

The city of Jackson has had to cut water production at its main treatment plant due to flooding from the Pearl River.

Low water pressure left some people unable to take showers or flush toilets, and officials said the low pressure caused concern for firefighting, the Associated Press reported. Those who did have water flowing from the tap were told to boil it to kill bacteria that could make them sick.

President Joe Biden has been briefed about Jackson’s flooding and water problems, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday on Twitter.

“FEMA is working closely with the state officials to identify needs, and the EPA is coordinating with industry partners to expedite delivery of critical treatment equipment for emergency repairs at the City of Jackson water treatment facilities,” she said.

A resident talks about the water crisis affecting Mississippi's capital city. (Source: CNN)

On Monday, the Pearl crested at 35.37 feet, more than 7 feet above flood stage. As a result, operators have had to make adjustments to the treatment process and have had to cut production there as a result of the change in the water’s chemical makeup brought about by that flooding.

The problems at the water treatment plant came after the city appeared to largely avoid widespread flooding from a Pearl River swollen by days of heavy rain

“Because of the river water coming into the plant, we have had to change the way we treat the water. The chemical composition of the water coming in, we [had] to figure out how to contend with the water coming in,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said during a Monday press conference. “It has led to the reduction of water being put out into the system, which consequently, reduces tank levels and affects, systemwide, the water pressure in the homes of our residents.”

The water treatment plant brings in water from the reservoir. During floods, the makeup of the water changes and can have higher turbidity, more sediment and more organic materials in it.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves held an emergency press conference Monday night, hours after the mayor’s announcement.

Not long after Lumumba’s announcement, reports began pouring in from businesses, residents and state government officials that they no longer had water service.

Reeves said that’s because of a failure at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant, the city’s main treatment facility.

“What I am focused on right now is ensuring that we get an incident command center set up at the facility. They will be at O.B. Curtis, first thing tomorrow morning. They will work with the city personnel that are currently there. And we will assess what needs to be done to get the quantity of water flowing as quickly as humanly possible.”

Reeves wasn’t sure how long the state would be assisting the city, but officials said it could be for several months.

Reeves told reporters the state will be setting up a unified command center at the water treatment plant, and that officials with the Mississippi State Department of Health will immediately send in experts to help assess the problem at the facility.

The governor said the state had been preparing for a water failure at the plant but was hopeful that failure was still months or weeks away.

“We were told on Friday that there was no way to predict exactly when, but that it was a near certainty that Jackson would fail to produce running water sometime in the next several weeks or months,” he said. “We began preparing for a scenario where Jackson will be without running water for an extended period. Over the weekend, we started developing water distribution plans, sourcing tankers and assessing all the risks associated with an event like this ...

“All this was with the prayer that we would have more time before the system ran into failure,” he added. “Unfortunately, that failure appears to have begun today.”

Citing the lack of water, Jackson Public Schools is shifting to virtual learning on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the governor is leaving it up to many state agencies with downtown offices to determine whether they will operate.

The Mississippi Supreme Court, for instance, is going to operate with reduced staff at the Gartin Justice Building on Tuesday, with most staff of the appellate courts and Administrative Office of Courts working remotely.

“We have two water treatment facilities in the city of Jackson Fewell and O.B. Curtis is not operating anywhere near capacity. And we may find out tomorrow it’s not operating at all. We’ll find out,” Reeves said. “But what we do know is that ... the quantity of water is moving through the pipes in the city of Jackson, not even speaking to the quality, the quantity is not sufficient to provide the kind of water pressure that we need to do a lot of things.”

“Clearly, it’s not moving through the system fast enough to the 19th floor of the Sillers Building to ensure that our chiller is keeping the 19 floors of state government operating properly,” he added. “But it’s also, in some instances, perhaps not getting to the fourth or fifth floor of dorm rooms at Jackson State.”

Jackson State’s move-in day was initially delayed a week due to the city’s ongoing low water pressure and boil water notice.

MEMA Executive Director Stephen McCraney said several steps are being taken to help. Beginning Tuesday, the agency will be bringing in potable and non-potable to distribute to residents.

“We have a hurricane stock, a tornado stock ... it’s not the biggest in the world, but I’m going be able to roll out of there with probably 38,000 bottles of water first thing in the morning,” he said. “And then 18-wheelers are on the way. Logistics officers have already made that order.”

Initially, efforts will be to set up at city fire stations, where water is currently being distributed. However, MEMA will expand those efforts to other areas.

The state health department issued a boil water notice for all customers on Jackson’s surface water system on July 29. The notice was put in place due to high levels of turbidity taken in water samples. Lumumba initially objected to the order, despite the fact that Jackson issued its own boil water advisory.

Numerous issues have led to problems at the plant, including a lack of maintenance and a lack of staff.

“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,” Reeves said. “The state is going to get more operators at O.B. Curtis.”

A WLBT analysis showed that the water treatment plant has just two full-time Class A water operators, a requirement under federal and state statutes.