Jackson’s water system has received its first cut of a promised $600 million federal investment in public service that has been plagued by problems for decades and more recently has seen nationally publicized system-wide failures.
The Environmental Protection Agency and President Joe Biden announced Tuesday that the city, through its federally appointed third-party water manager and the company it oversees, will receive $115 million of that total.
Jackson Water System:What to know about federal management, the latest
According to a press release from the EPA, this block of funds will be used to identify and repair leaks in the distribution system, develop a system-wide assessment of valves and fire hydrants, ensure adequate pumping capacity to maintain pressure and water distribution and develop a system stabilization and sustainability plan. The larger $600 million was approved by Congress in the 2023 federal budget and is distributed by the EPA under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“For years, the people of Jackson, Mississippi have suffered the consequences of an aging water infrastructure. Last summer, the city’s water system reached a crisis point when a major flood exacerbated longstanding problems in the system and left tens of thousands without any running water for days on end. Long before that, Jackson’s families lived under the constant threat of boiling water orders,” Biden said in a statement Tuesday. “All Americans deserve access to clean, safe drinking water. That’s why I’ve directed my administration to make sure the people of Jackson get the resources they need and deserve.”
Biden specifically thanked Rep. Bennie Thompson for his tireless commitment to the Jackson community. Thompson, a Democrat whose 2nd congressional district includes much of Jackson, also released a statement on Tuesday.
“This is an incredible milestone in ensuring access to safe drinking water for the Jackson, Mississippi community,” Thompson said. “It is a testament to the work Congress has done to provide this funding to Jackson through the 2023 bipartisan federal budget and is a first step in resolving the water crisis for the citizens of Jackson. The continued dedication and commitment of President Biden’s administration is essential and much appreciated.”
Support for the funding announcement also came from across the aisle. A statement also came from Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, who said he supported the budget and the previous bipartisan infrastructure bill in part because of what it could do for the state capitol.
“This is great news for the city of Jackson and our state,” Wicker said. “The protracted water crisis in recent years has shown us the urgent need for improvements to drinking water infrastructure, and I was pleased to work with members of the Mississippi congressional delegation to secure emergency funding to help. With this first prize, the City of Jackson will have the resources it needs to begin addressing many of the long-standing challenges with its water supply and help protect against future emergencies.”
During a Monday forum sponsored by Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government and the Capitol press corps, city water manager Ted Henifin let slip details of the first tranche of the $600 million that they had arrived.
“We’ve just seen the first part of this, we’ve applied for $115 million in grants to address some early priority projects. That grant has been awarded and I’ve already withdrawn about $15 million and spent it on leak repairs, engineering work in progress,” Henifin said.
At the forum, Henifin also exposed the astonishing severity of the city’s water problems. Henifin told the group that the city collects revenue for only 56% of its turnover. On top of the other 44% of unpaid bills there are also people with connections that don’t even have an account and large amounts of water leaking out of the system through numerous leaks.
That lack of revenue has left the city with about $280 million in outstanding debt, about $23 million of which it has to pay each year in private bonds.
The leaks also require the city to produce far more water than it needs. Henifin said the system produces about 50 million gallons of water a day, while other cities the size of Jackson produce about 20 million gallons.
“We shouldn’t need more than 20 million liters of water, but we put nearly 50 into the system every day. That’s because we have leaks everywhere. Big leaks that we haven’t even found,” Henifin said. “We fixed a couple of big leaks.”
Some of the leaks that have been repaired include a massive leak on the old Colonial Country Club property that was responsible for a loss of 5 million gallons per day.
“We fixed it. We are mobilizing to repair the large break under the railroad tracks in the Georgetown area,” Henifin said. “I’m confident we’ll be able to continue to crack down on demand.”
However, there are other leaks yet to be discovered. The same day the funding announcement came from the federal government, JXN Water, Henifin’s company, announced that it was experiencing reduced water pressure due to a known leak in the area near Fortification and Capers, Bailey and Maple, and “a new leak, yet to be discovered”.
If leaks could be reduced further, the city could close its aging JH Fewell water treatment plant and focus on the more modern OB Curtis plant, Henifin said. Between the Curtis plant’s conventional and membrane treatment systems, it should be able to produce about 50 million gallons per day alone.
That said, during the depths of the water crisis, the Fewell plant was at times the only one producing water and has been described as the city’s “workhorse” by state officials. Henifin remains confident that with infrastructure improvements and new operation and maintenance contracts, the Curtis facility will more than meet the city’s needs.
According to the EPA release, Jackson may be able to bring down even more federal dollars, on top of the $600 million. Henifin said he will never turn down funding again, but his confidence to do his job will not depend on further funding.
Once the city can pay off its debts and start collecting a higher percentage of bills, Henifin said local revenue can go towards the system itself.
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