Jackson water crisis caused by ‘decades of under-investment,’ says DOJ-appointed manager


(JACKSON, Miss.) — In recent years, Jackson, Mississippi, has grappled with crisis after crisis with its water infrastructure. Historic flooding in late summer and freezing temperatures in December damaged the city’s water distribution system, leaving many residents without running water or under boil-water notices for weeks at a time.

The Justice Department appointed a third-party manager in November to fix the ailing system and manage some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding earmarked to address the crisis. Ted Henifin spoke to “GMA3” hosts DeMarco Morgan and Stephanie Ramos about why the problem has gone on for so long and how the city plans to solve it.

STEPHANIE RAMOS: Ted, thank you so much for being with us. Right off the bat, can you explain what your position is?

TED HENIFIN: Yeah, it’s a tough one to explain. So the Department of Justice and EPA came to town and negotiated a deal with the city and the state Department of Health to create basically a third party to manage the system. And so that was presented to the court at the end of November. And the judge entered that order, effectively appointing me as this interim third-party manager. So I’m an officer of the court working here for the good of the citizens of Jackson.

DeMARCO MORGAN: All right, Ted, according to The Washington Post, there have been more than 100 complaints about the water. The city has had to warn residents their water may be undrinkable. The water supply was reportedly shut off for 45 days last summer. So why has this gone on for so long and what needs to happen in order to end this crisis?

HENIFIN: Well there’s been, I think, decades of under-investment here in Jackson for a variety of reasons, shrinking population, older core cities — lot of folks start moving out of those and they leave a large infrastructure that needs to be maintained and operated. As such, there’s fewer ratepayers to deal with that. There have been many, many challenges on that end. And climate change. We’ve had sort of the freeze of the century the last five years here in Jackson, like a lot of the other Southern cities. Our facilities weren’t built for that. So as those things continue, we’re really thankful to have the federal dollars available to start making those investments that need to be made. And over the next five years and a lot in the next couple of years, we’ll see some significant investments. Already today we’re really able to provide pretty consistent pressure through the system, which is a big improvement over the last several months. That’s been the biggest problem.

You can live on bottled water for a while, to take care of your drinking and teeth brushing. But no water at all, having no water to flush the toilet, wash the dishes, wash your clothes. That’s a real tragedy. Any time you have anybody without water in a water system like this, it’s terrible. So, whether it’s one or 1,000 or 2,000, it doesn’t matter. We’re really striving to eliminate that and put that in Jackson’s history as we move forward.

RAMOS: And Ted, you’re tasked with coming up with a water system financial management plan. Not easy, given all the issues there in that city. How are you tackling that? What’s in the plan and when will residents start to feel safe when it comes to the water there?

HENIFIN: I would hope they would feel safe again. Building that trust is tough, but the water has been heavily tested since the fall, with EPA on site doing additional water testing, that went all the way through January. So I was telling folks here, it’s the most-tested water in America and it was for some time and continues. We’re going to continue to have EPA come in periodically to validate the testing we’re doing. But we’ve found no issues with the water up to this point, since it’s been back in functioning fully the way it has been since the fall.

But the other parts of the plan include really creating a sustainable source of local revenue. We really need to build the rate structure that folks can afford their water and pay their bills, because at the end of the day, this federal dollar, which is wonderful to have, this money coming for infrastructure, that’s one-time money. And if we don’t do something to make sure we’ve got a sustainable plan going forward, it won’t be maintained, and we’ll find ourselves back here in 20 years.

MORGAN: Ted, I used to live in Jackson, actually went to Jackson State there, and it’s no secret that water quality issues have historically hit black and poor communities the hardest. The mayor of Jackson has accused the governor of racism over this. Is this a discrimination problem or just a problem with bad management and planning over the years?

HENIFIN: I would say, from my perspective, it’s probably more bad planning and management. But there’s been lots of challenges between the state and the city. And you have to wonder a little bit about the motivations and a lot of that. But I’ve been really trying to be forward focused, trying to solve the problem. And one of the issues that does exist and it is a continual challenge, is the location of the water treatment plants.

Both water plants are on the eastern edge of the city, one very much in the northeast corner, and the other on the eastern side of downtown. And the areas that suffer the most during our problems are really the furthest away from the plants. And those happen to be the furthest south and the furthest west. If you know Jackson State, DeMarco, then you know that’s in that southwest part of the city. And that water has to go through a lot more piping and a lot further elevation. It’s actually a higher elevation than where the river and the reservoir are. So as a result of that, they feel the pressure problems the worst, and they are some of the most disadvantaged parts of the city. Again, I don’t think that’s a direct correlation, but I do believe that we need to do a lot more to make sure that those pressure issues are resolved. And that’s one of the things we’re working on right now.

RAMOS: And we really hope that happens quickly. Ted, you’ve got a big job ahead of you. Thank you for joining us. And best of luck there in Jackson.

HENIFIN: Thanks, Stephanie.

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