Residents of Jackson, Mississippi, are in the throes of a seemingly unending water crisis and a near collapse of the city’s public water system.
Jackson’s current crisis came to a head after the city experienced heavy rains in late August, increasing the raw water entering the OB Curtis Water Treatment plant, the city’s primary water treatment plant. This, in turn, slowed the treatment supply and caused a drop in water pressure, leaving over 150,000 residents without access to water. (When water pressure drops, there’s a high probability that untreated groundwater can enter the water system through damaged or cracked pipes, thus forcing residents to have to boil water to kill potentially harmful bacteria.)
As of Monday, city officials said the OB Curtis Water Treatment plant had restored water pressure to 87 PSI. However, a boil-water notice remains in effect—a frequent occurrence in the city of Jackson, where boil-water notices can last for a few days, while others can last for weeks.
The problems plaguing the city of Jackson today are grave and systemic: old and leaky pipes, malfunctions at treatment plants, all connected to a shrinking tax base (and shrinking funds for public infrastructure) resulting from white flight, which began after schools were integrated in the 1970s, and economic disinvestment. The state’s Republican legislature has also failed to provide the majority-Democrat city with adequate funding for repairs. Without a complete overhaul of the water system, residents will be living in a perpetual water crisis.
Jackson, Mississippi, is a majority-Black city (82%) where residents have either been without water or have been under a boil-water advisory since July 30, after the Mississippi State Department of Health detected levels of turbidity or cloudiness in the water that violated state health regulations. Even before the pressure dropped at the OB Curtis Water Treatment Plant, Jackson’s system—and its citizenry—was already under distress. In February, 2020, a winter storm ravaged the city’s already-failing infrastructure and burst pipes bursts left many residents without water for a month.
Investigative sampling, which helps determine the quality of water, began on Tuesday. The city will take 120 water samples from across Jackson to determine if the boil-water notice can be lifted. It will take two consecutive days of clear samples before the state Department of Health lifts the boil-water notice.
This is, indeed, a crisis, and the lives of Jackson’s residents have been upended. Residents in South Jackson are still waiting in lines in the sweltering heat for bottled water they can use to drink, cook, and brush their teeth.
Residents in South Jackson, a majority-Black and working-class neighborhood, have been lining up at 2827 Oak Forest Drive, a tennis park where staff members of the violence prevention organization Operation Good have organized drives to donate water since the crisis started. They have also been dropping off supplies to elderly people in the community who don’t possess the resources to purchase bottled water. Both Operation Good on the South side, and Cooperation Jackson on the West side have been working overtime to meet the needs of their beleaguered neighbors.
On Labor Day, I visited Jackson with water contributions from my community in New Orleans to deliver to Operation Good. While loading cases of water, I spoke to Operation Good members and a resident from South Jackson about the ongoing neglect that led to this travesty today, and about the fact that, until it receives billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure repairs and system upgrades, a majority-Black American capital city will be continually left without water.
I asked residents and volunteers, “If you had an opportunity to speak to Gov. Reeves about the water crisis, what would you say? And what can ordinary people do to help?” Here’s what they said.
The crisis that we have going on in Jackson—this has been happening since I was a little kid… Every year the water be messed up and the potholes be messed up. You all have all this money, what you all spending it on? This is Jackson. This is the capital of Mississippi. Why won’t you all take the time out and fix the city? We have people that want to travel, visit different states, and come to Mississippi. Why won’t you all just make the city look good? Man, people probably won’t come…
What would I say to our governor? He’s y’all governor, not my governor.
This water crisis should have been fixed. The situation with this water has been going on for years and years. You have been funded many a time by the federal government to fix the water situation. Instead of y’all fixing it, you want to patch the water situation and pocket the rest of the money—or whatever you want to do with it. You’re not taking care of the good citizens of Jackson.
That’s why I’ve been here working with Operation Good; we’ve been providing for our citizens. On the South, North, West, East—every side of Jackson—Operation Good are there helping communities. We do community cleanups, we pass out water, we have extravagant events to feed whole communities. Everything.
Our government—they don’t care about us, not the lower class. You have to be up there with them people in that rich class in order for them to take care of you. Where do you see this water problem happening? In Jackson. Meanwhile, in Brandon—that’s one of the surrounding cities—now they saying they have water problems because their water system is connected to ours. But actually they been on the news saying their water system is not connected to ours. So why y’all trying to fund them? Why y’all sending water over to Brandon and these different areas when the people right here in Jackson need it? You tell me, Governor.
If I could speak with Governor Reeves in reference to the water crisis, I would actually tell him to come reside in one of the South Jackson locations, put his family in one of these neighborhoods, in one of these homes, let them have to live in this situation to see how it actually feels. It’s no fun, and you don’t really feel it until your family has to deal with it firsthand. We can get on TV and talk about the problem, we can get in front of the cameras and talk about what we’re going to do, but unless you’re out here living in it you don’t fully understand.
It’s frustrating for the citizens of Jackson—South Jackson, North Jackson, East Jackson, West Jackson—to have to do this. We have elderly people who can’t afford to buy water. You can’t boil water to take baths; it’s a high risk. I have a six-year-old grandson who received third-degree burns three years ago during a boil water alert. His mom was boiling water to try to bathe and cook, he bumped into her in the kitchen while she was transferring the boiled water from the stove to the sink, and he received burns. It’s not safe. Kids don’t understand what’s going on when they see their parents coming through with big pots of water that they’ve boiled just to wash a dish, or big pots of water just so they can take a bath adequately.
When it comes to us out here passing out the water, I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. My community needs it. If I could give everybody what they need I promise I would, but I don’t have the finances. But just being able to see the looks and smiles on these people’s faces when you hand them these cases of water that they need—they’re very appreciative, and it makes me feel good as a person. It makes our organization feel good. It makes the youth in our organization feel good to give back to their community.
At one point in time, I was a problem in this community. I was a young kid. I was a hard-head little girl, running fast, but now I want to be part of the solution in the community. First step: trying to help with the water crisis. We help with the youth, we help with trying to clean up South Jackson. Whatever our community needs, Operation Good is trying to meet them there.
Patsy Marie Nard
You can’t cook ‘cause you don’t have any water. You can’t utilize the water ‘cause there’s toxins in it. They say that you should go to the store and buy water. But majority of the time most of the stores are out of water, and the stores that do have water—they’ve jacked their prices up three times. I mean, I’m on a set income. I get a social security check every month—that’s once a month. I can’t afford to buy water and pay bills. I didn’t expect for this to happen. I know God… He’s the head of everything, and everything happens for a reason. But Governor Reeves… they say they gave him everything they can give him, but he hasn’t got up and done anything.
If Governor Reeves could just get up and start serving us in Jackson, Mississippi… How would he feel if he didn’t have water? He can probably afford it, but a lot of people like myself cannot afford water. I mean, that’s something that you need in order to survive. I need water. I’m disabled and I have a whole lot of illnesses. I am so sick. I have to take a whole lot of medicines, I have to go see a doctor, I have to do everything. But if Governor Reeves, making all that money, could please just get up off his tail and try to put some of that money toward other people. A lot of people need that money. I’m not “out” no money because I don’t get none. And when I get it I don’t mind sharing and giving to others. Because you never know when you might be in distress, like right now.
What if it was one of Governor Reeves’s siblings, or his parents or something, in the same predicament as we are? He wouldn’t want to feel like that, to wake up the next day and one of his parents or siblings or closest friend is deceased because they were dehydrated, because their sodium level is low and they had some seizure or heart attack or brain tumor due to lack of water. You have to have water to live.
I got other people in the household. I got my son, my granddaughter, me, my boyfriend. My daughter comes over ‘cause she doesn’t have any water. Then you turn the water on and it’s just drip, drip, drip. How you going to take a bath with some little drip of water? And you can’t use your bottled water cause you have to have something to drink. So then you have to go places with a smell… I don’t like to get out the car, to be honest with you, because I haven’t been able to really take care of my hygiene like I would normally do. I just was thinking, “Maybe it’s the last days or something.” I don’t really know what’s ahead for me.
And so, I just thank God every day that I’m living and there are people in this world that do care, just like you. You care. This lady and her husband over there—look how much they care. A lot of people just don’t care. A lot of people just be asleep. Open your eyes up and wake up! Because, instead of giving people some water, people out here making money jacking the prices up. I go to the store and the man charged me $2.19 for a bottle of water—and then, with tax, it was $2.39. I said, “Man, you crazy.” I know I needed it. I said, “That’s wrong, though. How you going to charge somebody for the water?” Money is the root of all evil. Money going to be here when you ain’t… I just hope people open their eyes up and think. God gave you a brain; use it.
If I had the chance to speak to Governor Reeves, I would ask him what’s been the delay since he’s been in office? He’s been made aware of these problems. We try not to do the blame game because this affects the whole city of Jackson, but we would ask him, “Hey, what’s the hold up? Forget the mayor. Forget the city council. Forget the people you have problems with. Some of these citizens are the ones that voted for you. Whatever little beef or misunderstandings you have with other politicians—put that on the back burner, man. Take care of your constituents first. These people voted for you, man.” A lot of people think, like, “Oh, didn’t none of the Black people vote for Tate Reeves.” But a lot of people in our community voted for him over the other choice… He had a lot of support from Jackson, Mississippi, whether he believes it or not. I was out here at the polls taking elders to vote. So, we supported Tate Reeves, but it’s like he forgot.
Governor Reeves wants to build a golf course over here. What about water? We got this and that, we allocate money for everything, but it’s hard for these kids to get water. These people need water. We have a lot of elders and we have a lot of babies, man. If you don’t have elders to teach and babies to follow those teachings, it’s the end of society. We got to take care of them babies and our elders.
We know it’s not 100% Governor Reeves’s fault, but he’s in that seat now, so, hey, we all got to bear the burden of our forefathers, right? He got to bear what they left there on his plate. They left that there for him. It wasn’t something he started. It’s been going on since the ’80s, since Mayor Kane Ditto—first mayor to publicly say, “Hey, we got a problem with our water system in Jackson.” How many governors and mayors we’ve had since then?
We all can blame who we want to blame, but it’s a Mississippi failure. It’s not a Jackson failure, it’s not a mayor failure, it’s not a governor failure. It’s a Mississippi failure as a whole. This is our state capital. If I was governor, I’d be embarrassed. I’m the governor and I’m sitting here at the capitol building and these people around me ain’t got no water? All these other cities and states got to donate? Mississippi and Jackson are doing things, but they ain’t moving like the people out of town. Ain’t no excuses. I ain’t heard nobody out of town say, “Ain’t no water” yet. But the state and all of them are saying, “Ain’t no water. It’s hard to find.” How is it hard to find when we got people from New York, everywhere, sending truckloads of water?
If the water is a crisis, a whole bunch of stuff falls under that water crisis. Because they tell you, “Don’t open your mouth and don’t open your eyes if you take a shower in the water.” As an adult, I’m like, “Eh, maybe I shouldn’t even take a shower if I got to do all this,” because you may take a shower every day in the water no problem, but everybody’s body is different. What if I take a shower and I wake up the next morning and my throat is swollen up? We never know what the poisons in the water going to do to everybody individually.
As far as what everyday people can do to help, the first thing I would ask everybody to do is say a prayer for each of us. Say a prayer for your neighbor, because that’s what it’s going to take. It don’t matter how much money the government allocates and dumps. If God ain’t overseeing that money, it still ain’t going to do what it need to do. I ask everybody to just say a prayer and do what you can do. Don’t be a part of the problem. Let’s forget whose fault it is. Let’s forget. Let’s be the ones that fix it. White, Black, Mexican, Asian, Puerto Rican—it doesn’t matter. Let’s fix the problem for the citizens of Jackson. Anything you could do—if you go in the store and buy a bottle of water for your neighbor, one bottle of water, case of water, it doesn’t matter. Anything you could do to help, to be a part of the solution instead of the problem, that’s what we ask from the citizens.
And for the citizens of Jackson, stay calm. We know it’s frustrating. We live here. I’ve stayed in this same South Jackson neighborhood, one of the poorest neighborhoods (if not the poorest part) of Jackson. And me and our team, Operation Good and our youth participants—we were out here seven days last week, Monday through Sunday. Not one time did we say to the citizens that come through that there wasn’t no water. We have people just going in their personal pickups to buy pallets of water from Target or Home Depot.
If people could do this out their own pockets, how the government officials going to say, “Oh, it is hard to find water right now because so many people buying it”? I ain’t buying that. With politicians, man, no matter what color they are, it’s all a game. At the end of the day, they lie to us to get in there, and then when they get in there they might pass one little bill and say, “Okay, we gonna do a one cent tax cut for the citizens, but that’s it.” What about all the other stuff to save the city?
Let me ask you this: How many state capitals in America you know don’t have a shopping mall or a movie theater? Jackson, Mississippi, the only one in these United States. We are the largest city in the state of Mississippi, the state seat, and we don’t have none of these things. You’ve seen it. The roads look a mess. It’s like we on a backwoods road in the country where they drive tractors all the time.
Once again, I would reiterate to all citizens—whether you’re in Jackson, New Orleans, Chicago, wherever—let’s not say, “It’s his fault, or his fault.” Let’s say, “Hey, what happened? What can we do to fix it? To help?” Let that be our motto during this water crisis in Jackson. “What can we as individuals do to help?” Because we have to understand what we do as individuals reflects upon all of us. Let us have self discipline amongst ourselves and help the community; don’t worry about whose fault it is. If we do what we got to do in God’s name, we ain’t got to worry about whose fault it is, because he’s going to fix it. He knows what needs to be done, who needs to be moved. He is going to take care of that part. We just do the good part and let God do the rest.
Us passing out water to the community is helping them while their water pressure is low, because a lot of people ain’t able to move around to get their water or able to do what they need to do because they’re elderly. Us passing out water to the community is good because they ain’t going to have no water to cook if we weren’t out here seven days a week, passing out water to the community so they can eat what they want to eat by using bottles of water. They can’t use no water from the sink because there’s no pressure in the faucet.
I think that’s a good deed for us to do what we doing instead of us just being at home. We could have just been sitting at home chilling, but we took out time, out of our kind hearts, to come out here, pass out water seven days a week, every day, nonstop.
What ordinary people can do to help is donate, come out here, help us pass it out. Or spread the word around the community and say, “We have water up here if you need any water for your shower.” Stuff like that.
Geno Wolmac (Not Pictured)
This problem been going on, so I can’t just say it end with Governor Reeves or start with him. As far as all who play a role in a state government and our city government, this is something that everybody been knowing was an issue. I don’t think that the adequate infrastructure money is allocated to the city of Jackson because of how it is here: It is a predominantly Black city. All of the tax base has been eroded. The investment in Jackson hasn’t been there. Encouragement of investment in Jackson hasn’t even been taking place on the state level or on the city level. Therefore, when you erode the tax base, you are going to erode the infrastructure here.
In the future, we should invest in our capital city the same way other states invest in the metro area. It don’t matter what political party a city is or what color or race people are in the city; it’s still a part of the state. I think it takes everybody working together to make sure people won’t have to go through a water crisis like we going through. If we all in this together, then we should all work together.