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Jackson, Mississippi, water crisis: Repairs have begun at the water treatment plant but residents are still without clean water

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CNN
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As Mississippi’s capital city entered a fourth day Thursday with little or no water flowing from faucets, authorities are scrambling to get a failing water treatment plant plagued by decades of deferred maintenance back online.

The problem – which comes on top of a boil-water notice in effect for more than a month – has upended life in the city of roughly 150,000 residents, where schools were shuttered this week, businesses are forced to adapt and people have had to wait in long lines for bottled water they can use to drink, cook or brush their teeth.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba is optimistic the water can be restored to residents this week, he told CNN Wednesday. “But there is a huge mountain to climb in order to achieve that,” he added.

The problem came to a head Monday, when river flooding nudged an already-damaged main treatment plant to failure, meaning many of Jackson’s faucets are delivering barely – if any – water. In some cases, the water has been brown.

City residents already had been told to boil their water since late July because of quality concerns, and the water system has been troubled for years.

A rental pump installed Wednesday at the treatment plant will help add 4 million more gallons of water a day into the system, authorities believe. The state also contracted with outside operators to begin work on critical emergency repairs.

“We’re flushing bad water out of the system and making mechanical improvements to prevent an even more catastrophic failure,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said during a Wednesday news conference.

But even as fixes are made, service has fluctuated, and the governor warned, “There will be future interruptions … they are not avoidable at this point.”

“Our immediate priority is to have running water, even temporarily sacrificing some quality standards where we absolutely have to, to fulfill basic sanitary and safety needs,” Reeves said, urging residents not to drink the water without boiling it

“We are hopeful that we will be able to increase the quantity of the water which will ultimately get the tanks more full and ultimately lead to a scenario in which we can do the proper testing and actually produce clean water,” the governor said. “But we’re not there yet.”

The state Thursday opened seven new sites for distributing bottled water, which are in addition to distribution sites already established by the city, Reeves said.

The sites, staffed by the National Guard, include the state fairgrounds and Hinds Community College and for now, will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., he said.

Cars line up Wednesday at a water distribution site at Grove Park Community Center in Jackson, Mississippi.

While authorities rush to make repairs, get needed parts and deal with staffing shortages at Jackson’s water plants, the crisis is upending daily life.

Residents are seeing cloudy, discolored water coming out of their faucets and are being told it should be adequate for sanitation purposes. They can’t use the water to drink, cook or wash dishes, but they can shower and wash their hands in it, officials said.

“Please make sure in the shower that your mouth is not open,” Jim Craig, senior deputy and director of health protection at the Mississippi Department of Health, told residents Wednesday, adding pets should also not consume the water.

According to the mayor, it’s unknown when residents will no longer have to boil water, and that can’t be assessed until the water pressure returns to normal.

In the meantime, all Jackson public schools shifted to virtual learning Tuesday. Jackson State University also shifted to online classes this week and set up portable showers and toilets across campus.

“It’s like we’re living in a nightmare right now,” sophomore Erin Washington told CNN. Another student described seeing brown, smelly water coming out of faucets on campus.

Businesses – many still trying to recover from Covid-19-related setbacks – are also struggling. Most affected 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.

A father of five, Kehinde Gaynor, said the water shortage has been frustrating for his family.

“It’s devastating as a father because we are the providers for the family. Right now, we are just crippled because we have no control over what’s happening on the outside of the home,” Gaynor said.

Residents have had to endure long lines to get bottled water and non-drinking water at distribution sites operated by the city. Some sites this week ran out of water and turned people away.

Jackson resident Anita Shaw, 63, arrived early Thursday at a site where the Salvation Army was to distribute bottled water – a site the group says ran out of 2,700 cases a day earlier before everyone in a long line could get one.

Shaw expressed frustration: Residents have been without clean water service for more than a month; not everyone can afford to keep buying bottles, and lines for free water are long. Water coming from her faucet Thursday was light brown, she told CNN.

She’s still had to pay her $100 water bill, she said.

“I paid $100 … and can’t use the water,” Shaw said. “What good is paying the water bill when you can’t use the water?”

President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for Jackson, and Reeves said it will allow Mississippi to tap into critical resources to respond to the crisis.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell will head Friday to Jackson, CNN has learned.

The O.B. Curtis Water Plant is seen Wednesday in Ridgeland, north of Jackson, Mississippi.

Though Jackson has seen numerous water problems over the years, acute problems have cascaded since late July, when cloudy water was noticed at the city’s O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant. The state imposed a boil-water notice for Jackson, because the cloudiness carries higher chance that the water could contain disease-causing organisms.

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.

City officials and Reeves’ office have not responded to CNN’s requests for details about the damage and the causes.

Last week, the governor was warned that Jackson would soon fail to produce running water, Reeves said.

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

Intake water from a reservoir was impacted by the heavy rainfall, creating a chemical imbalance on the conventional treatment side of the plant, Craig said Wednesday. This affected particulate removal, causing that side of the plant to be temporarily shut down and resulting in a loss of water distribution pressure.

Even with the installation Wednesday of the temporary pump, substantial mechanical and electrical issues remain due to deferred maintenance, including various pumps and motors that must be replaced and sludge in basins that has accumulated to levels that are “not acceptable,” Craig said.

Staffing issues have further complicated matters, officials said.

Quad Johnson, center, carries packages of bottled water Wednesday to cars at a water distribution site at Grove Park Community Center in Jackson, Mississippi.

Jackson’s water system also got walloped in February 2021, when a severe winter storm hit, freezing and bursting pipes and leaving many residents without water for a month.

That came after the city’s water system in early 2020 failed an Environmental Protection Agency inspection, which found the drinking water had the potential to be host to harmful bacteria or parasites.

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.

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.

Asked Wednesday about claims that the deterioration of the water infrastructure in Jackson is a result of environmental racism, Reeves said the state does not run the water systems.

“In the state of Mississippi, we have a large number of municipalities that run their own water system. We have a large number of rural water associations that run their own water system. Prior to Monday of this week, the state of Mississippi runs exactly zero water systems,” he said.