A blue bucket in a bathroom is full of water to be used for flushing the toilet at Wilkins Elementary School in Jackson, Mississippi on March 23, 2022. - Every morning, 180 students at a school in Jackson, Mississippi have to board a bus to be taken to another nearby school. The reason? Their school lacks the water pressure needed to flush its own toilets.
Cheryl Brown, the principal at Wilkins Elementary, where 98 percent of the 400 students are African-American and most come from underprivileged backgrounds, doesn't hide her frustration. (Photo by Mark Felix / AFP) (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)
Water in this US city is so dirty, boiling it doesn't make it usable
01:57 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

As Mississippi’s capital faces a third day without reliable water service Wednesday – pushing some residents to stand in long lines for bottled water and keeping schools and businesses closed – the mayor says he hopes water service can be restored this week.

The problem came to a head Monday, when river flooding nudged an already-hobbling main treatment plant to failure, meaning Jackson couldn’t necessarily produce enough water to flush toilets or even fight fires, officials say. The water system has been troubled for years and the city already was under a boil-water notice since late July.

Officials “are optimistic that we can see water restored to our residents within this week” in the city of roughly 150,000 residents, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba told CNN Wednesday.

“There is a huge mountain to climb in order to achieve that,” he said. Crews “are working persistently to restore the pressure, to refill the tanks across the city,” Lumumba said.

Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted Wednesday that an emergency rental pump that will pump an additional 4 million gallons of water is being installed at Jackson’s water facility.

“More to be done, but the work is happening at an incredible pace!,” Reeves tweeted.

The governor also declared an emergency and activated the National Guard to help distribute bottled water, and said he sent resources for urgent repairs and maintenance at the plant. Some service already has improved, and truckloads of water are coming for distribution to the public, officials said.

President Joe Biden, who signed a major disaster declaration Tuesday triggering assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spoke to Lumumba on Wednesday to discuss emergency efforts, the White House said.

Lumumba said Wednesday that he spoke extensively with Biden and separately with Harris about the situation in Jackson.

“Both assured me that the eyes of Washington are watching the city of Jackson. They wanted us to know that we should expect the full arm of support from the federal government in every way that they possibly can,” mayor said. “And they assured me their support was going to be demonstrated through long-range and long-term efforts through the EPA.”

Cars line up as water is distributed at New Jerusalem Church in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 31.

Advocates have previously pointed to systemic and environmental racism as among the causes of Jackson’s ongoing water issues and lack of resources to address them. About 82.5% of Jackson’s population identifies as Black or African American, according to census data, while the state’s legislature is majority White.

The water system has suffered from “deferred maintenance over three decades or more,” and the city will need funding help to catch up, Lumumba said earlier this week.

Water crisis upends nearly all aspects of Jackson

While local, state and federal agencies are trying to mitigate the water crisis, it is still upending nearly all aspects of life in the city, where public schools shifted to virtual learning Tuesday.

Cassandra Welchlin, a mother of three, told CNN her kids are out of school and they’ve had to buy water to cook, brush their teeth and for other basic necessities.

Brown water has been running from her taps, said Welchlin, executive director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable.

“We still would not use that water. We don’t boil it to do anything with it because grit is in the water,” she said. “It’s a really bad public safety issue.”

A photo of a bathtub in a Jackson home shows how brown the water can get when coming out of the faucet.

Local businesses are also struggling to stay afloat, Dan Blumenthal and his partner Jeff E. Good, who own Broad Street Bakery & Cafe, BRAVO! Italian restaurant and bar and Sal and Mookie’s New York Pizza and Ice Cream Shop, told CNN.

All three businesses are owned by the management company Mangia Bene Restaurant Management Group Inc.

Blumenthal said the restaurants were able to recover after Covid-19, but the current water crisis has brought on similar staffing issues. Tanya Burns, who has managed BRAVO! for the last 12 years, told CNN that she has seen a 10% to 20% decrease in foot traffic since the boiling water advisory started four weeks ago.

“It feels like Covid to me with the way things are going,” Blumenthal said. “We had to let all of our staff go after Covid and now we’re not letting them go but we’re worried they’ll jump ship and go to another county where they can make money.”

The most affected business sector is the city’s hospitality industry, said Jeff Rent, president and CEO at Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership.

“Hotels and restaurants, already on thin margins, either cannot open or they have to make special accommodations including the purchase of ice, water and soft drinks,” Rent said.

Chairs are seen on tables at Brent's Drugs diner in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 31.

Even the process of distributing bottled water to residents has had difficulties. At a distribution event Tuesday at Hawkins Field Airport, residents waited in a line more than a mile long – and some were turned away when the site ran out of its 700 cases of water in just two hours.

Some stores ran thin of supplies. Jackson resident Jeraldine Watts was able to snag some of the last water bottle cases at a grocery store Monday, she told CNN. She and her family have been using bottled or boiled tap water for everything, including cooking and washing dishes.

“I keep saying we’re going to be the next Michigan,” Watts said, “and it looks like that’s exactly what we’re headed for.”

Watts was referring to Flint, Michigan, which was hit with a water crisis around 2015 when tainted drinking water containing lead and other toxins was detected in homes and residents reported children suffering from mysterious illnesses.

Corean Wheeler, who picked up a case of water at a local church, said she feels “disenfranchised” by the city’s water crisis.

“You don’t even want to wash your hands in this water,” said Wheeler, 72. “You can’t drink it, you can’t cook with it, you can’t even give it to your pet. We are constantly paying water bills and we can’t use the water. We feel like we are living in a third world country in America and that’s kind of bad.”

Jackson’s University of Mississippi Medical Center said air conditioning at one facility is not functioning properly because of low water pressure, and portable restrooms are being used at other facilities.

Water crisis interrupts campus life at JSU

At Jackson State University, there is “low to no water pressure at all campus locations,” and water is being delivered to students, officials said. The university’s head football coach, Deion Sanders, said its football program is in “crisis mode.”

Sophomore Erin Washington told CNN, “It’s like we’re living in a nightmare right now.” Washington has already booked her flight home to Chicago.

“The water would be brown and kind of smell like sewage water,” said JSU freshman Jaylyn Clarke, who decided to go back home to New Orleans until the water situation is resolved.

The university is working to make provisions for the 2,000 students who live on campus, university president Thomas K. Hudson told CNN on Wednesday. Portable showers and toilets have been set up across campus and classes were virtual for the week.

Hudson said Jackson State has a stash of drinking water that it keeps for emergencies. The university is also bringing in clean water to keep the chillers operating for air conditioning in the dorms, Hudson said.

“It’s their frustration that I’m concerned about,” Hudson said. “It’s the fact that this is interrupting their learning. So what we try to do is really focus on how we can best meet their needs.”

What happened, and what officials say is being done

Though Jackson has seen numerous water issues over the years, acute problems cascaded since at least late July, when the state imposed a boil-water notice for Jackson after high levels of turbidity, or cloudiness, were noticed at the city’s O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. The cloudiness carries higher chances that the water could contain disease-causing organisms, the city said.

Around the same time, the main pumps at O.B. Curtis – the city’s main treatment plant – were severely damaged, forcing the facility to operate on smaller backup pumps, Reeves said this week without elaborating on the damage. The city announced August 9 that the troubled pumps were being pulled offline.

A security guard is seen outside of O.B. Curtis Water Plant on August 31.

The governor said he was told Friday that “it was a near-certainty that Jackson would fail to produce running water sometime in the next several weeks or months if something did not materially improve.”

Then, flooding: Heavy rains last week pushed the Pearl River to overflow and flood some Jackson streets, cresting Monday.

O.B. Curtis received additional water from a reservoir because of the flooding, and that changed the way the plant treated the water, causing the plant to produce even less than it was, and that severely lowered the water pressure across the city, Lumumba said Monday.

Some improvements have been made at the plant, but more is needed, state officials have said.

On Tuesday, the plant was pumping about 30 million gallons of a day; it is rated to pump about 50 million gallons a day, Jim Craig, director of health protection at the state health department, told reporters Tuesday.

Reeves previewed the installation Tuesday night, saying a rented pump “will allow us to put at least 4 million gallons” more into the system.

“That is progress and will help,” Reeves said Tuesday. It wasn’t immediately clear how long the installation would take or how soon it could impact the city’s water flow.

Reeves has said the state would split the cost of emergency repairs with the city.

On Wednesday, an additional pump was installed at the plant, Lumumba said. Despite some issues with water pressure – which is measured in pounds per square inch (psi) – on Tuesday night, the mayor said the city expects water pressure to increase Wednesday night.

“The goal is to get psi on the surface system to 87psi,” Lumumba said, explaining the pressure at midnight was 40psi.

The mayor is still asking residents to continue boiling water.

“It is safe to take baths in, it is safe to wash your hands. However, if you are drinking or cooking with it, we ask you to boil that water. If you’re washing the dishes, we ask that you boil the water in that circumstance to make certain that it is safe for you,” he said.

An aerial view of the O.B. Curtis Water Plant on August 31.
Malcolm Pickett lifts a case of water outside of New Jerusalem Church in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 31.

As a fuller solution, Lumumba has said it would take $2 billion to fully repair and replace the dated water and sewer systems, and that’s money the city isn’t close to having.

“I have said on multiple occasions that it’s not a matter of ‘if’ our system would fail, but a matter of ‘when’ our system would fail,” the mayor said Tuesday, adding that the city has been “going at it alone for the better part of two years” when it comes to the water crisis.

Lumumba added that there will be water distributions across the city Monday through Friday starting at 5 p.m., Saturday at 11 a.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m..

“The city of Jackson has brought in tankers to distribute non-potable water to residents in need. Residents are asked to bring a container, such as a garbage can or a cooler to store the water. This is not water to be consumed, this is the water for sanitary needs of flushing toilets and things of that nature,” the mayor said.

Beginning Thursday, seven mega distribution sites with 36 truckloads of water will be available each a day for the public, Lt. Col. Stephen McCraney, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said Tuesday.

Corporations like Anheuser-Busch, Walmart and Save A Lot, as well as volunteer organizations are also donating water to the city, McCraney added.

The city is also providing flushing water, Jackson City Councilman Aaron Banks told CNN.

“One of the first things that we realized is that people need to be able to flush, because that becomes a problem as far as making sure that people have that quality of life that they need,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we need a fix and the same attention that was given to Flint, Michigan, we need that same attention given to Jackson,” Banks said.

A local church is also helping to distribute water in the meantime. At New Jerusalem Church in southwest Jackson, Malcolm Pickett was seen Wednesday loading cases of water from a trailer into trunks and backseats. He announced on social media earlier he’d be giving out water at the church led by his father Pastor Dwayne K. Pickett.

“They are scared to use the water and that’s the biggest thing,” Malcolm Pickett said. “We are all about helping people.”

Malcolm Pickett loads water into a resident's car outside of New Jerusalem Church in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 31.

At Jackson State, some students are raising money to buy water for Jackson residents in need, and have created a hotline that those residents can call to ask for help.

Maise Brown, 20, a junior at Jackson State, organized the group of about 20 students, called Mississippi Student Water Crisis Advocacy Team. The group launched a social media campaign Tuesday to raise money and to publicize the hotline.

As of Wednesday morning, the group raised about $2,000 and received about 10 calls asking for help.

“We had disabled residents calling us … for help,” Brown said. “We also had people who live outside the city call us and ask us to help their elderly parents.”

The group plans to knock on the doors of homes, hoping to reach people who might not see its social media campaign, Brown said.

Long-standing issues at troubled water system

Jackson’s water system has been faced serious issues for years.

In early 2020, the Jackson water system failed an Environmental Protection Agency inspection, which found the drinking water had the potential to be host to harmful bacteria or parasites.

In February 2021, a severe winter storm hit, freezing and bursting pipes and leaving many residents without water for a month.

“Since that time, there has not been a month where we have not experienced no-flow to low-flow in certain areas in south Jackson, and so it’s very frustrating,” Banks, the city councilman, told CNN.

In July 2021, the EPA and the city entered into an agreement to address “long-term challenges and make needed improvements to the drinking water system.” The EPA also recently announced $74.9 million in federal water and sewer infrastructure funds for Mississippi.

CNN’s Sara Smart, Nicquel Terry Ellis, Melissa Alonso, Amanda Musa, Pamela Brown, Caroll Alvarado, Amy Simonson and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.