By Theresa Waldrop, CNN
Mississippi’s capital has been without reliable tap water service since Monday, when rainwater flooding helped push an already-hobbled treatment plant to begin failing.
Significant gains have been made to restart the system, officials have said, but when potable water will flow again to Jackson’s roughly 150,000 residents — who for weeks already had been under a boil-water alert — remains an open question.
Until then, families and businesses are forced to buy water or rely on an inefficient system of bottled water pick-up sites for water to drink, cook and brush teeth.
Here’s how the latest chapter in the city’s water disaster has unfolded:
What is the latest news?
Efforts to continue to bring a vital water treatment plant fully online and restore clean drinking water to the city experienced complications Friday, Jim Craig, director of health protection at the Mississippi Department of Health, told reporters.
One of the issues was a chemical imbalance Friday afternoon that prompted officials to shut down the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant for a few hours.
“It’s like fixing the airplane while you’re still flying. You have to be very careful how you fix it so that you stay flying,” he said. “It’s the same thing as we’re trying to produce water. All that water demand needs to continue to occur, and every time we have to do some maintenance then we have to offset some of that.”
Workers at seven state-run distribution centers have handed out almost 2.8 million bottles of water over a period of about 24 hours, Gov. Tate Reeves said.
Earlier, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said at a news conference the city has had “two consecutive days of gains.” Lumumba said the signs of recovery don’t “mean by any stretch that all residents have pressure or water.”
One of the challenges as the city reestablishes water pressure is the possibility of pipes bursting.
“We know that we have brittle pipes, we have aged pipes, just as our water treatment facilities are aged,” he said.
The mayor also explained the process before the boil water notice can be lifted, saying, “Once pressure is restored to all residents, then the next stage of that process is that the health department gives the OK, gives the go ahead to start the testing process.
“Once that testing process begins, there are about 120 sites that they begin to take samples from, and you have to have two consecutive days of clear samples before the boil water notice can be lifted.”
What led to this week’s outage
The main pumps at Jackson’s O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant around late July were severely damaged, forcing the facility to operate on smaller backup pumps, the governor said this week, without elaborating on the damage, which city officials also have not detailed.
The city announced August 9 the troubled pumps were being pulled offline.
Then last week, the governor was warned Jackson would soon fail to produce running water, Reeves said.
And then came the flooding: Heavy rains last week pushed the Pearl River to overflow, cresting Monday, and to flood some Jackson streets — while also impacting intake water at a reservoir that feeds the drinking water treatment plant.
A chemical imbalance was created on the conventional treatment side of the plant, Craig said Wednesday.
It affected particulate removal, causing a side of the plant to be temporarily shut down and resulting in a loss of water distribution pressure, he said.
Staffing problems have further complicated matters, officials said.
What needs to be done to fix it
A temporary rented pump was installed Wednesday at the plant, and “significant” gains were made by Thursday, the city said, with workers making a “series of repairs and equipment adjustments.”
As of Thursday, water pressure had been restored to some residents, with those close to the plant having almost normal pressure, the city said. Those farther away and at higher elevations still had little to no pressure.
On Friday, the pumping pressure at the Curtis treatment plant fell from 85 pounds per square inch to 77.2, Craig said.
A boil-water advisory went into effect in late July — well before Monday’s service disruptions — after cloudy water at the O.B. Curtis plant was blamed on high levels of the mineral manganese, “combined with the use of lime,” the city said. That order has yet to be lifted.
Contractors also were making assessments Thursday, according to the city update, and the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers were at the site.
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell in Jackson on Friday. President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for the city, and it will allow Mississippi to tap into critical resources to respond to the crisis, Reeves said.
How people are coping without running water
Residents have understandably been angry and frustrated, with no water to drink or brush their teeth or, in many cases, even flush toilets.
Some waited hours in long lines this week for a case of bottled water, only to be turned away when the supply ran out.
Jeraldine Watts, 86, was in a line that stretched for 2 miles, she told CNN.
Watts, who was born and raised in Jackson and lives with her daughter and granddaughter, said they have to use bottled or boiled water for everything — even to cook and wash dishes.
“We are constantly paying water bills, and we can’t use the water,” Jackson resident Corean Wheeler said. “We feel like we are living in a third world country in America, and that’s kind of bad.”
Schools switched to virtual learning as of Tuesday, and a medical center was without air conditioning because of a lack of water pressure to feed its chillers, the University of Mississippi Medical Center said Tuesday.
The governor declared an emergency, and the National Guard was deployed to help distribute water. On Thursday, the state opened seven distribution sites, adding to those operated by the city.
Residents who were getting discolored water from their taps were told it should be used for showering or washing hands only and not for drinking or cooking.
“Please make sure in the shower that your mouth is not open,” Craig told residents.
City water system problems go back years
An unreliable water supply is nothing new to Jacksonians. The city’s water system in early 2020 failed an Environmental Protection Agency inspection, which found the drinking water had the potential to be host to harmful bacteria or parasites.
Residents were without water for a month when pipes froze and burst during a 2021 winter storm. And the late July boil-water advisory remains in effect.
The problems are largely systemic — old and leaky pipes, malfunctions at treatment plants and insufficient money to fix the problems, according to a report by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that the Clarion Ledger published in January.
Staffing at the plant also has been a problem, according to Reeves and the mayor.
“This is something that has been occurring for years, but sometimes it takes these catastrophes to make sure that this disaster comes to light,” Mississippi state Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr., of Jackson, told CNN this week.
The EPA and the city entered into an agreement last year to address “long-term challenges and make needed improvements to the drinking water system.” And that agency recently announced $74.9 million in federal water and sewer infrastructure funds for Mississippi, though $2 billion is needed for the work, the mayor has said.
Advocates have pointed to systemic and environmental racism as among the causes of Jackson’s ongoing water issues and lack of resources to address them. About 82.5% of Jackson’s population identifies as Black or African American, according to census data.
Cities like Jackson suffer the “benign neglect” of those in power, Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, told CNN in April. “I am concerned that it’s just another symbol of what I call one of the relatives of the Confederacy where communities that need help are not given the help, especially if they’re marginalized or communities of color.”
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CNN’s Jamiel Lynch, Nouran Salahieh, Jason Hanna, Amir Vera, Amy Simonson, Melissa Alonso, Amara Walker, Amanda Musa, Maria Cartaya, Sara Smart, Caroll Alvarado, Peter Nickeas and Isabel Rosales contributed to this report.