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TFK Explains: The Jackson Water Crisis

HERE TO HELP Aelicia Hodge helps hand out bottled water in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 31. BRAD VEST—GETTY IMAGES

On September 15, residents of Jackson, Mississippi, were told that the city’s tap water was once again safe to drink. For nearly seven weeks, they’d had to boil it before using it. Here’s what to know about the crisis.

Why has Jackson been without safe drinking water?

Trouble started in late July. But heavy rain and flooding in August made it worse. Water overran the city’s treatment plants, damaging water pumps. That left homes and businesses with little to no water pressure. When that happens, untreated water can leak through cracks in old pipes.

How long has unsafe drinking water been a problem?

Jackson has struggled with access to safe water for decades. According to the city’s Clarion Ledger, mayors have been calling for a better water system since the 1940s. In the 1970s and again in 2020, the United States Environmental Protection Agency warned Jackson that its system needed work. In 2021, the city sent out frequent boil-water notices. Residents were urged to boil tap water before using it for drinking, washing dishes, or brushing their teeth.

Why has Jackson’s water system been neglected?

Jackson can’t afford to fix it. The city’s population has been declining since the 1980s, which means Jackson doesn’t collect enough money in taxes. Some say the state of Mississippi has not invested enough in the city. Jackson is home to 150,000 people. About 25% of its residents live in poverty.

What is being done?

Mississippi governor Tate Reeves says clean water has been restored, in part, by installing a rented emergency pump. The boil-water notice has been lifted. But officials say children and people who are pregnant should stick to bottled or filtered water. Since late August, the U.S. National Guard has given out millions of bottles of water in Jackson.

What happens next?

President Joe Biden has pledged to direct more federal money toward improving Jackson’s water system. The White House says the city has already received more than $20 million in federal funds. Meanwhile, emergency repairs to Jackson’s water system are ongoing. Governor Reeves says more work is needed before the system is fully safe. “It is possible, although I pray not inevitable, that there will be further interruptions,” he says. “We cannot perfectly predict what may go wrong with such a broken system in the future.”

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