By Nouran Salahieh, Jason Hanna and Amir Vera, CNN
As Mississippi’s capital city entered a fourth day on Thursday with little or no water flowing from faucets, authorities were scrambling to get a failing water treatment plant plagued by decades of deferred maintenance back online.
The problem — which comes on top of a boil-water notice in effect for more than a month — has upended life in the city of roughly 150,000 residents, where schools were shuttered this week, businesses are forced to adapt and people have had to wait in long lines for bottled water they can use to drink, cook or brush their teeth.
After days of work on the plant — including Wednesday’s installation of a rental pump — “significant gains” were made by Thursday morning, and water pressure is returning in some areas, city officials said. Areas closer to the plant “are experiencing almost normal pressure,” while areas farther away still have low to no pressure, they said.
“We made some positive gains within the system. We are encouraged,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said in a news conference Thursday.
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will head on Friday to Jackson, CNN has learned. President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for Jackson, which the governor said will let Mississippi tap into critical resources to respond to the crisis.
The tap water problem came to a head Monday, when river flooding nudged an already-damaged main treatment plant to failure, meaning many of Jackson’s faucets were delivering barely — if any — water. In some cases, the water has been brown.
City residents already had been told to boil their water since late July because of quality concerns, and the water system has been troubled for years.
The rental pump installed Wednesday at the treatment plant will help add 4 million more gallons of water a day into the system, authorities said they believe. The state also contracted with outside operators to begin work on critical emergency repairs.
The treatment plant sends treated water to above-ground tanks spread across the city, and those tanks — which send water to homes and businesses — are supposed to be full for optimal pressure, Gov. Tate Reeves has said. Failure of the plant’s pumps led tank levels to drop.
More than half the tanks “have begun filling back up,” city officials said Thursday in a news release. The plant’s pressure output increased to 78 pounds per square inch as of Thursday morning, while the goal is 87 psi, the release said.
Proper pH-measuring also is a challenge, Reeves said Thursday.
“There have been some challenges with the sensors that are measuring the pH balance of the water coming into the facility,” Reeves said, adding operators at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant have worked with and “seen every pH level and they know exactly what they need to add” to normalize imbalances.
“We think there is a potential for a relatively quick fix on that to get those sensors accurate,” the governor said. Officials are not sure the quick fix will work, but state and local officials want to try it, Reeves said.
But even as fixes are made, service has fluctuated. “There will be future interruptions … they are not avoidable at this point,” Reeves said Wednesday, adding he also urged residents not to drink the water without boiling it.
Lumumba was optimistic Wednesday water service could be restored this week, he said then, but “there is a huge mountain to climb in order to achieve that.”
Daily life upended in Jackson
While authorities rush to make repairs, get needed parts and deal with staffing shortages at Jackson’s water plants, the crisis is upending daily life.
Residents are seeing cloudy, discolored water coming out of their faucets and are being told it should be adequate for sanitation purposes. They can’t use the water to drink, cook or wash dishes, but they can shower and wash their hands in it, officials said.
“Please make sure in the shower that your mouth is not open,” Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of health protection at the Mississippi Department of Health, told residents Wednesday, adding pets should also not consume the water.
It’s not known when residents will no longer have to boil water, and that can’t be assessed until the water pressure returns to normal, the mayor has said.
Residents have endured long lines to get bottled water and non-drinking water at distribution sites operated by the city. Some sites this week ran out of water and turned people away. The state Thursday opened seven new sites for distributing bottled water, in addition to city distribution sites, Reeves said.
Jackson resident Anita Shaw, 63, arrived early Thursday at a site where the Salvation Army was to distribute bottled water — a site the group says ran out of 2,700 cases a day earlier before everyone in a long line could get one.
Shaw expressed frustration: Residents have been without clean water service for more than a month; not everyone can afford to keep buying bottles, and lines for free water are long. Water coming from her faucet Thursday was light brown, she told CNN.
She’s still had to pay her $100 water bill, she said.
“I paid $100 … and can’t use the water,” Shaw said. “What good is paying the water bill when you can’t use the water?”
All Jackson public schools shifted to virtual learning Tuesday. Jackson State University also shifted to online classes this week and set up portable showers and toilets across campus.
“It’s like we’re living in a nightmare right now,” sophomore Erin Washington told CNN. Another student described seeing brown, smelly water coming out of faucets on campus.
Businesses — many still trying to recover from Covid-19-related setbacks — are also struggling. Most affected is the city’s hospitality industry, said Jeff Rent, president and CEO at Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership.
“Hotels and restaurants, already on thin margins, either cannot open or they have to make special accommodations including the purchase of ice, water and soft drinks,” Rent said.
Longer-term fixes are needed
Though Jackson has seen numerous water problems over the years, acute problems have cascaded since late July, when cloudy water was noticed at the city’s O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. The state imposed a boil-water notice for Jackson, because the cloudiness carries higher chance that the water could contain disease-causing organisms.
Around the same time, the main pumps at O.B. Curtis — the city’s main treatment plant — were severely damaged, forcing the facility to operate on smaller backup pumps, Reeves said this week without elaborating on the damage. The city announced August 9 that the troubled pumps were being pulled offline.
City officials and Reeves’ office have not responded to CNN’s requests for details about the damage and the causes.
Last week, the governor was warned that Jackson would soon fail to produce running water, Reeves said.
Then, flooding: Heavy rains last week pushed the Pearl River to overflow and flood some Jackson streets, cresting Monday.
Intake water from a reservoir was impacted by the heavy rainfall, creating a chemical imbalance on the conventional treatment side of the plant, Craig said Wednesday. This affected particulate removal, causing that side of the plant to be temporarily shut down and resulting in a loss of water distribution pressure.
Even with the installation Wednesday of the temporary pump, substantial mechanical and electrical issues remain due to deferred maintenance, including various pumps and motors that must be replaced and sludge in basins that has accumulated to levels that are “not acceptable,” Craig said.
Staffing issues have further complicated matters, officials said.
Jackson’s water system also got walloped in February 2021, when a severe winter storm hit, freezing and bursting pipes and leaving many residents without water for a month.
That came after 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.
In July 2021, the EPA and the city entered into an agreement to address “long-term challenges and make needed improvements to the drinking water system.” The EPA also recently announced $74.9 million in federal water and sewer infrastructure funds for Mississippi.
Advocates have previously 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, while the state’s legislature is majority White.
Asked Wednesday about claims that the deterioration of the water infrastructure in Jackson is a result of environmental racism, Reeves said the state does not run the water systems.
“In the state of Mississippi, we have a large number of municipalities that run their own water system. We have a large number of rural water associations that run their own water system. Prior to Monday of this week, the state of Mississippi runs exactly zero water systems,” he said.
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CNN’s Amy Simonson, Melissa Alonso, Amara Walker and Isabel Rosales contributed to this report.