Jackson’s water system could need billions in repairs. Federal infrastructure funds are not a silver bullet.

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JACKSON, Mississippi — Residents of Mississippi’s capital — who are currently without clean tap water and in some neighborhoods lack sufficient water pressure to flush the toilet — had good reason to hope that the ambitious last year’s $1 trillion federal infrastructure agreement would help.

President Joe Biden shared the city’s struggles while promoting the infrastructure bill in August 2021, saying, “Never again will we be able to allow what happened in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi. .”

In a state where financial windfalls are scarce, the federal package could be transformational for Jackson, who desperately needs funds to fix a fragile system in which sewer lines often break and residents regularly experience outages and advisories. to boil their water. Mississippi is set to receive $429 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to repair its water and sanitation systems over the next five years, mostly in the form of loans, some of which are repayable. , and grants from the Environmental Protection Agency.

But as the city remains under a state of emergency, it could face a long wait for some of those funds — and a battle for the city’s share. One of two state agencies tasked with disbursing millions of dollars in federal infrastructure funds said it could be at least mid-to-late 2023 before any allocations are rolled out. And Jackson won’t be the only one coming to the table; the money is intended to reach communities across the state.

Even if the state gave Jackson all the funds Mississippi should receive, it wouldn’t be enough. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a Democrat, said the cost of overhauling the city’s water infrastructure could run into the billions. This far exceeds the money allocated under the infrastructure act.

“We are already in a life-and-death crisis,” said Danyelle Holmes, a Jackson resident who helps distribute water in the city and works as a national social justice organizer with Repairers of the Breach, which mobilizes low-income people. voters and the Campaign for the Poor. “Lives have been compromised on a daily basis due to the water crisis and pushing back this year to 2023 just won’t work for the citizens of Jackson, especially when we’re talking about humanity and the preservation of life. .”

No deaths linked to the water outage had been reported on Friday, but health advocates have expressed concern about the vulnerability of dialysis patients, who need access to clean water for treatment. .

There is a reparations funding mechanism that could reach Jackson sooner. This year, the Mississippi Legislature created a $450 million water infrastructure funding package with money the state received under the Congressional Covid Relief Package that passed in 2021. But the plan requires cities and counties to contribute matching dollars, and Jackson only has about $25 million. in the American Rescue Plan Act funds to commit, according to Senator John Horhn. Applications for the program opened on Thursday and some of that money could be awarded by the end of the year.

Ty Carter, with Garrett Enterprises, fills jugs Wednesday with unsafe water at Forest Hill High School in Jackson, Mississippi.Brad Vest/Getty Images

Mississippi’s capital infrastructure has been likened to a “peanut fragility,” prone to water main breaks, permanent service interruptions, and sewage spills onto residential streets. Some pipes in the system were installed before the Great Depression. There is also a history of deferred maintenance, which has resulted in repair costs eclipsing the entire city budget.

The consequences of a maintenance kick on the road were serious. Boil water advisories are common in Jackson, and residents’ concerns about passing contaminants are ongoing. In 2016, routine tests revealed high levels of lead, leading state health officials to warn pregnant women and young children not to drink city water, an advisory which remained in place last year.

Even without notice, some locals avoid drinking from the tap. That means paying a bill each month for a service they can’t fully utilize and also going to the grocery store for cases of bottled water. Wallets were hit even harder in February 2021, when many residents lost access to running water for a month after a cold snap froze machinery. Some residents have been unable to work as businesses have closed.

Attempts to fix the problems were marred by insufficient revenue at the city level following decades of population loss. There has also been a lack of aggressive investment by the state legislature, which for many black Jacksonians is a painful modern reflection of Mississippi’s long troubled history with race: Jackson is a majority city. black with a Democratic leadership, while the State House which is located there has been dominated in recent sessions by predominantly white male Republican leaders. And although Mississippi has the highest percentage of black residents in the country, all elected officials in the state are white.

Lumumba said he was in no position to turn down state aid, but noted earlier in the week that the city had “gone it alone” in recent years. Members of the city’s legislative delegation tried last year to get an additional $42 million from the state for the city, but were unsuccessful. the bill containing the appropriation died in committee.

State Rep. Shanda Yates, an independent who lives in Jackson and led the effort, said a $42 million executive appropriation from the Legislature likely would have flowed to the city sooner, compared to the U.S. bailout matching grant program, which is just getting started. In progress.

A direct allocation to the city from the legislature, she explained, could have meant the city could start some work “as soon as possible.”

“Maybe we could have already started them,” she said of the repair work the money would have covered.

Some residents have long argued that racial disparity in state representation is the reason the city’s crisis has been allowed to fester without substantial financial support from the legislature.

“What’s really sad is that we have the resources and the technology to prevent this kind of disaster,” Holmes said. “The negligence to prevent this kind of disaster is a direct failure of the state leadership.”

While the relationship between city and state leaders has been bruised in recent years, Lumumba and Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, have more recently stood together. Thursday was the first time the two appeared at the same press conference regarding the current water crisis.

A spokesperson for Reeves did not respond to requests for comment; a spokesperson for Lumumba had no comment.

As many across the country prepare to extend Labor Day weekend, Jackson remains plagued by a water outage. Sometimes tens of thousands of city dwellers have little or no running water. Residents were already grappling with a boil water advisory in effect since July 29 and bracing for possible flooding after days of heavy rain when the latest crisis erupted.

On August 29, Jacksonians had barely breathed a sigh of relief after learning that the city would likely be spared severe flooding, when Reeves announced that the capital’s water system was on the verge of collapse. .

City officials said the deluge impacted the operations of one of its water treatment plants, fueling the disruptions. An emergency rental pump was installed to help increase production.

Some of the longer-term solutions, previously cited by city officials, could involve replacing water pipes in the capital at a cost of over $11 million. Prior to the recent outage, repairs at water treatment plants were expected to exceed $35.6 million. And to fix some of the problems with the city’s sewer system, the cost is estimated at $30 million.

The $429 million Mississippi will receive from the federal infrastructure law over the next five years will flow primarily through two agencies.

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality administers the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program. (Revolving fund programs recycle money that was repaid by previous borrowers to future borrowers, helping cities and counties that may not have enough revenue from their tax base to pay for repairs.) The agency has initially received around $17 million and said it plans to begin allocating funds in the second half of 2023.

Although the money has yet to be released, Jan Schaefer, a spokesperson for the agency, said Jackson recently received about $31.7 million for a project involving his sewer system during a a previous round of federal funds. The city has also completed initial planning required to secure $163 million in additional funding from state revolving loan programs, it said in a statement, but has not yet submitted applications.

Once the required paperwork is completed, she said, the projects “could likely be funded over the next few years.”

Another portion of the infrastructure money will go to the State Health Department’s Clean Water Revolving Fund. That fund already has more than $19 million from the law, which it has begun to incorporate into planned allocations, according to Les Herrington of the agency’s Office of Environmental Health. The agency did not immediately share details of its timeline for awarding additional funds.

In fiscal year 2021, $27 million in revolving loans from the federally-supported clean water fund were issued to Jackson to make improvements to treatment facilities, but no new applications were received. made since last year, according to the state Department of Health.

As the process of disbursing federal funds progresses, residents continue to wait in water lines stretching more than a mile for basic necessities. A definitive date for restoring service was not given.

On Friday morning, the city said water pressure levels were improving, but not yet at ideal levels.

Sam Mozee, director of the Mississippi Urban Research Center at Jackson State University, says his team is tracking what’s happening with upcoming funding. Colleagues know firsthand how crucial money will be — the campus has shifted to virtual classes due to the outage.

“Health, safety, economic vitality – water affects everything,” Mozee said. “The whole system, everything is at stake.”

Bracey Harris reported from Jackson; Daniella Silva reported from New York.

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