Laurie Bertram Roberts walks 3 miles down a nearby hill to the store to fill up her 5-gallon jug with filtered water. The mother of seven makes the trip every week to make sure she has 1 gallon for each family member.
She stopped counting the boil water notices since they can happen at least three times a month. The longtime resident of Jackson, Mississippi, has been drinking filtered and bottled water for years due to scarce or dirty water. She doesn’t use the town’s water for drinking, bathing or cooking.
A year ago, a winter storm shut down Jackson’s entire water system, leaving tens of thousands of residents without water for a month in the middle of a pandemic. That only made matters worse for Betram Roberts, who had to buy baby wipes, extra underwear, disposable plates and microwaveable food – necessities she resorts to when she knows her family will be without clean water.
When she knew she was going to be without water for a while, Betram Roberts became concerned for her twins, who have autism and eczema head to toe. She was scared that the little dirty water she had access to would get into a skin crack or open sore on their skin. She then decided to take the 27-year-old twins almost three hours away to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for a couple of weeks.
“I think the fact that our water has become something that we joke about a lot, tells you a lot about where we are at,” she told CNN. “It’s become this running commentary that is just so ubiquitous, and you don’t really think about how messed up that is. Water is a human right.”
Betram Roberts has been making the trip to fill her jug for several years now because of her hesitancy to use the city’s water. It has become so normal to her that it’s now part of a weekly routine and has become a necessity. It’s a matter of survival for her and her family even though she says it has become a joke to others.
Residents like Betram Roberts paint a picture of how this city of more than 151,000 people has been forced to deal with a water crisis as well as a pandemic. After the storm last year, leaders of the majority Black community begged the state for $47 million for water and sewer repairs, but the legislature gave them only $3 million. The Environmental Protection Agency also recently announced $74.9 million in federal water and sewer infrastructure funds for Mississippi. However, the mayor says it would take $2 billion to fully repair and replace the dated system that has too much lead in its water.
Town administrations have dealt with this issue since the 1900s. The town’s first African American mayor, Harvey Johnson, held office for two terms and faced the challenges of poverty, a loss of population and a lack of federal and state resources. Even with his efforts to mitigate these circumstances, Jackson’s water system was still a concern at the end of his term in 2005 and still is four mayors later. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba took office in 2017.
Although Lumumba says he is aware of the ongoing challenges, residents continue to report low to no water pressure and raw sewage flowing in city streets and neighborhoods. Jackson residents say they have been boiling their water to make it safe and traveling to cities like Braxton, 30 minutes away, to buy bottled water. This has highlighted Jackson’s outdated and neglected water infrastructure, which community leaders and experts say is connected to environmental racism. The city is about 82% Black and 17% White.
Lumumba told CNN a lack of political will and years of neglect on a national level has prevented Jackson from getting the help it needs to fix its water and sewer crisis.
“We’re going to take every bit of money that we can get to contribute to the problem,” Lumumba said. “There’s a lack of understanding of the challenges that happen in Jackson. We’re going to keep beating the drum and making it clear that this is going to require a more substantial investment.”
Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, advocates for rural communities of color who are facing environmental challenges and believes environmental racism is at play in Jackson.
“It really changes the way we operate,” Flowers said. “It also means that those people that can’t afford bottled water are put in a position where they can’t wash their hands on a regular basis like they should. And now with diseases like Covid, it is very important that you have access to water because water is a part of sanitation. It really makes people far more vulnerable.”
Flowers told CNN the impact of not having access to clean water is especially detrimental to lower-income communities that don’t have the money or resources to ensure they have clean water. About 25% of Jackson residents are in poverty compared to the national poverty rate of about 11%, and people are already disadvantaged. It’s often difficult for them to find transportation or money to obtain clean water.
Flowers said cities like Jackson are an example of “benign neglect” from those in power.
“I am concerned that it’s just another symbol of what I call one of the relatives of the Confederacy where communities that need help are not given the help, especially if they’re marginalized or communities of color,” she told CNN.
Many residents are left to face the long-term effects of an aging water system that lacks a supportive and strong foundation.
On rainy days, James Hopkins sets a bucket outside to collect water. When it doesn’t rain, the Jackson resident spends about $80 per week on bottled water to drink, bathe, brush his teeth and cook. On top of this, he still pays his water bill but hardly turns on his faucet.
When he showers with the water from the city, he says he is sometimes left with an itchy feeling on his skin, so he mainly resorts to bathing with fresh spring water from the supermarket. Hopkins has never trusted Jackson’s water.
“This water issue needs to be tackled constantly,” Hopkins said. “We can’t wait until the next storm or flood to say we have water issues.”
The marginalization and disinvestment of Black communities are intentional and therefore come as no surprise, according to Yvette Carnell, president and CEO of the American Descendants of Slavery Advocacy Foundation. She believes a water system with a fragile foundation is bigger than Jackson and is often common for Black rural communities.
“We have an infrastructure crisis in this country and, given the history of this country, it should come as no surprise that Black communities are the most starved for resources,” she told CNN. “Our needs are never prioritized when it’s time to fund new pipelines and thus, our communities fall into disrepair.”
Jackson is also facing fiscal constraints because of a population decline of more than 3,000 people and the city currently generates less tax revenue and overall economic activity. Its population has been declining since 2011.
An ongoing decline in tax revenue gives the town less financial resources to maintain and improve a public water system that was built for a larger population, according to John Green, director of the Southern Rural Development Center.
Green told CNN that a one-time allocation of funds will not be enough to improve Jackson’s infrastructure, but it will take a large investment, strategic planning, sufficient staffing and innovation.
Jackson’s plight is an echo of the Flint, Michigan water crisis, another majority Black community that has struggled with its water since 2014. With a Black population of about 54%, Flint has grappled with aging pipes, lead contamination in its water, and a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak.
Since 2014, Flint has seen progress including low lead levels in the city’s water, funding from the EPA and a compensation fund that will provide direct payments to Flint residents.
“Flint has rebuilt their water plan and improved their lead levels, and they’re moving forward from the past, whereas we kind of don’t see exactly where our situation is going to remedy,” Sheryl Bacon, research associate and analyst at the Mississippi Urban Research Center at Jackson State University said.
Mayor Lumumba recognizes a pattern of neglect toward Jackson and says the lack of investment is intentional, as the state and federal governments are aware of Jackson’s challenges but don’t act to fully address the crisis. He said Jackson must attain an equitable water distribution system to see any kind of progress that Flint has, but state leaders refuse to help and have left Jackson to deal with the crisis by itself.
Recent report recommends ways to address crisis
A recent report from the Mississippi Urban Research Center examined the Jackson water crisis from past and present perspectives to make research-based recommendations on efforts for the future.
The report – “Implications of the 2021 Jackson Water Crisis: Past, Present, and Future” – focuses on trends and changes in residential population, property tax revenues in the city of Jackson over the years and the effect that privatizing a public water system would have on the town. The authors recommend policy options including improved efforts to collect water bills and a push to create a new agency for enhanced interlocal government collaboration.
Dr. Isiah Marshall, an editor of the report and associate dean of Jackson State University’s School of Social Work, told CNN that environmental racism is at play in Jackson and is based on economic, social and historical factors.
“One of the things that this particular journal taught us is how we have to now mobilize people and communities to take some court of responsibility or knowing what to do to ensure that the most vulnerable are not suffering to these types of issues,” he said.
The report revealed that town officials must not only secure money to repair infrastructure, but they also must prepare cities to ensure that crises like Jackson’s won’t have such a negative impact.
“We need to be progressive in our thinking, and forward and focus as we approach environmental responsibility and sustainability,” Sheryl Bacon, an author of the report and research associate and analyst at the Mississippi Urban Research Center at Jackson State University told CNN.
The report also revealed that Jackson’s high concentration of low-wage jobs, renters and impoverished families affect access to water infrastructure. Bacon said it’s important to note that much of the Jackson community has struggled with financial barriers, not only to water, but to internet access and several other qualities of life factors.
What comes next?
Mayor Lumumba’s short-term goal for the city is to identify a means to stabilize Jackson’s water treatment facilities and pinpoint solutions to repair them. His administration will review the current investments and demand more.
Looking to the future, he said his long-term goal is to create a fully dependable and sustainable water system so that Jackson residents can use the town’s water to cook, clean, wash their clothes and drink.
“Our biggest strength as a city is the resilience of our people,” Lumumba said. “As an administration, we’re going to struggle without ceasing until we bring them the resources that they so justly deserve. We’re going to call out those that play a role in this.”