An American city of 150,000 people is without running water. Pumps at the main water treatment plant in Jackson, Mississippi failed this week. Low water pressure means that many homes and businesses can’t even run the taps. Those that are getting a trickle are advised not to clean their teeth with it, let alone drink it, since it is likely contaminated.
How did this happen?
Jackson city leadership would like you to think it has something to do with all the recent rains we have had here in Mississippi. Speaking somewhat cryptically at a recent press briefing, Jackson’s mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, said the water-treatment facility had been “challenged, as it relates to these flood levels”. Putting the blame on the rain, he went on to say that the city’s water administration was trying to “figure out how they contend with that additional water that is coming in”.
Officials in neighboring towns and cities, such as Madison, Flowood and Clinton, managed to figure out how to supply residents with clean water despite having just as much rain.
Unless the laws of physics are different in Jackson, the only logical conclusion one can draw from this fiasco is that Jackson’s water problems are a consequence of systemic mismanagement.
Two thousand years ago, the Romans figured out how to supply a city with running water by putting it in pipes. Jackson today seems to be struggling to master this technology.
Key water treatment plants in the city did not employ qualified personnel to run them. Now they have stopped running. What did city authorities think would happen?
For years, city authorities have underinvested in Jackson’s water infrastructure, to the point where it is now falling apart. This, some will be quick to tell you, is because of a lack of money. But why is there not enough money?
In 2017, Jackson’s water billing system collected $61 million in revenue, and the operating costs of the city’s water system were about $54 million. That left a healthy surplus that competent management might have allocated to meet maintenance costs.
This year, the amount of revenue collected is likely to be closer to $40 million, far below running costs. Not only is there no surplus to go towards maintenance, there does not seem to have been much maintenance even when there was a surplus.
How on earth does a city water authority manage to lose almost a third of its revenue in the space of five years? In large part because the city authorities have not collected revenue since they have lacked an effective water billing system.
Several years ago, Siemens was contracted to create a new billing system, while at the same time upgrading much of the city’s dilapidated water infrastructure. That arrangement ended with Siemens being sued by the city for $89 million.
Was that large dollop of Siemens’ money given to the city used to improve Jackson’s water system? Twice as much was spent on attorneys ($30 million) as went to improve Jackson’s water and sewage system ($14 million).
Given what happened with Siemens, I worry that Jackson might not be able to find a contractor willing to undertake the herculean task of fixing the city’s water supply, even if the money could be found. I also suspect that any large outside contractor prepared to undertake the task may want to ensure that they were free to subcontract with their preferred partners on the basis of value, and not to be subjected to various ‘contract rules’ on the basis of politics.
Without some sort of outside support, Jackson’s water crisis will not be resolved. Our’s may become the first state capital in America where it becomes impossible for residents to take a daily shower.
At the state level, Mississippi’s Governor Tate Reeves, who lives in Jackson, has stepped in. He has taken on the task of providing emergency water distribution to local residents – and offering state money to pay for half of it.
The federal government also seems keen to help out. President Biden specifically mentioned investing in Jackson’s water system, during the passage of the Infrastructure Bill. But as Representative Bennie Thompson has sensibly suggested, for the federal authorities to step in “the city to come up with a plan”. Representative Thompson is right.
The federal and state authorities seem willing to act. The key question is whether Jackson’s city leadership is willing to let them come in alongside.
Douglas Carswell is the President & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. He lives and works in Jackson.
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