What the Media Narrative Gets Wrong About the Jackson Water Crisis

The big news in Jackson, Mississippi is that we now have running water. Many residents of this 150,000-person city had to make do without water after the pumps at the main water treatment facility in the city went down a few weeks back. 

Even better news, for the first time in months the city is not on a ‘boil water notice’, meaning that we are supposed to be able to drink that water – not that I would be tempted to consume the sepia-tinged sludge that comes out of the taps. But at least it is now flowing.

After the immediate crisis has passed, it is worth wondering how it was possible that a state capital of America in 2022 could not provide basic necessities for its residents. How did it happen?

The Jackson city leadership would love you to believe that it is related to all the recent rains in Mississippi. Speaking somewhat cryptically at a recent press briefing, Jackson’s mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, said the water-treatment facility had been “challenged, as it relates to these flood levels.” Putting the blame on the rain, he went on to say that the city’s water administration was trying to “figure out how they contend with that additional water that is coming in.”

Officials from neighboring cities, such Madison, Flowood, and Clinton, were able to find a way to provide clean water to residents despite receiving just as much rain.  

Unless the laws of physics are different in Jackson, the only logical conclusion one can draw from this fiasco is that Jackson’s water problems are a consequence of systemic mismanagement.

Two thousand years ago, Romans found a way to supply water to cities using pipes. Jackson seems to be struggling with this technology today.

The city’s water treatment plants did not have qualified staff to manage them. They are now inactive. What did the city authorities expect to happen?

For years, city authorities have underinvested in Jackson’s water infrastructure, to the point where it is now falling apart. Many will quickly tell you that this is due to a lack of funds. But why isn’t there enough money?

In 2017, Jackson’s water billing system collected $61 million in revenue, and the operating costs of the city’s water system were about $54 million. That surplus could have been used by competent management to cover maintenance costs.  

The revenue collected this year is expected to be closer than $40 million. This is far less than the running costs. It seems that there is not enough surplus to pay for maintenance.

How is it possible for a city water authority to lose almost a quarter of its revenue within five years? Because they don’t have an effective water billing system, the city authorities have not been able to collect revenue.

I’m tempted to say that it feels like Homer Simpson was running the billing system, but the thing about Homer is that by the end of every episode Homer comes good. I’m not sure that the same can yet be said for our city.

Several years ago, the city contracted with Siemens to create a new billing system, and to upgrade much of the city’s dilapidated water infrastructure at the same time. The city sued Siemens for $89 million.

Was that large dollop of Siemens’ money given to the city used to improve Jackson’s water system? Twice as much was spent on attorneys ($30 million) as went to improve Jackson’s water and sewage system ($14 million).

Given what happened with Siemens, I worry that Jackson might not be able to find a contractor willing to undertake the herculean task of fixing the city’s water supply, even if the money could be found. I also suspect that any large outside contractor prepared to undertake the task may want to ensure that they were free to subcontract with their preferred partners on the basis of value, and not to be subjected to various “contract rules” on the basis of politics.

The restoration of the city’s water supply came about almost entirely thanks to the state governor, Tate Reeves. Tate Reeves took over the responsibility of providing emergency water distribution to the residents of the area and offered to pay half of it with state money. 

Of course, the media hasn’t given him a shred of credit for any of it.

Such is the level of dysfunction in Jackson’s city administration that not even the federal government (controlled by Democrats) is yet willing to step in with aid to help Jackson’s mayor (a Democrat) unless and until, as Representative Bennie Thompson (Democrat) put it “the city to comes up with a plan.” 

None of this stopped the media from reporting the water crisis story as a tale about the wicked neglect of state Republican officials who wanted to take down a Democrat-run municipality.

Instead of Many in the media portrayed the crisis as a race issue, starting with the fact that Jackson, like all other American municipalities, should be able provide clean water to its citizens. The Washington Post led the way with a ludicrous article saying that “racial politics” was to blame.  Others followed suit.

As I am relatively new arrival in Mississippi, what shocked me most about Jackson’s water crisis was not that it happened, but what I believe was the sheer dishonesty in much of the media reporting about what happened and why. 

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