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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Crisis in Jackson Shows Why Water Investments Are Needed Now

On this year’s World Water Day - centered on valuing water - cities like Jackson face a legacy of racism that has led to the undervaluing of communities.
By Kate Zerrenner

Photo: The Mississippi National Guard has helped distribute water in Jackson after winter storms disrupted the city’s water systems last month.

Last week, more than a month after storms crippled the water system in the city, Jackson, Mississippi lifted its boil water notice. What on the surface appear to be a precautionary measure takes on a different meaning when coupled with city’s history. On this year’s World Water Day - centered on valuing water - cities like Jackson continue to face a legacy of racism that has led to the underfunding and undervaluing of communities.

From poorer air quality connected to redlining, crumbling water infrastructure and lack of access to clean energy, communities of color and low-income communities struggle to protect their citizens’ health, environment and jobs - often in opposition to state leadership that continues to throw up barriers.

The crisis in Jackson was long in the making

Recent remarks from both Mississippi’s governor and lieutenant governor unfortunately reflected the disparity between the state’s and city’s leadership. The statewide office holders, both of whom are white, implied that the city’s Black leadership is incapable of doing their jobs well and that problems only arose after the end of the previous white mayor’s tenure. The city has been neglected, sometimes actively targeted, by state leadership, and the white flight from the city after forced desegregation in 1970 has only highlighted in the inequality.

In recent years, the state legislature has limited the city’s power to raise its own funds or make its own decisions. This is a troubling trend seen across southern states in particular as cities are often more diverse and progressive than the elected state leadership. Further, those same cities are also often the economic drivers for the entire state. It is especially distressing in Mississippi, the poorest and one of the sickest states in the country as well as one of the most publicly underfunded.

Redlining—the practice of mortgage lending discrimination that disproportionately affected communities of color—has created sections of cities that subject their residents to poor air and water quality, a phenomenon that has not only worsened as infrastructure crumbles but also creates greater vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change. Over 82 percent of Jackson’s population is African American, with poverty levels of 25.4 percent, compared to 19.6 percent for the state and 10.5 percent for the U.S. (Note: these are 2019 numbers and do not take into account changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The city’s water and sewer systems are chronically underfunded, with many parts of the system are limping along with age. In 2015, then-Mayor Tony Yarber declared two states of emergency for the city’s infrastructure to allow emergency repairs, although the City Council declined the second declaration. The first declaration allowed the city to raise about $12 million towards repairing crumbling infrastructure, but it was just a drop in the bucket of the $1 billion needed. We knew this water problem was coming.

Lack of water investments leaves much of the U.S. at risk

Jackson, like many Southern cities, sits in a state whose leadership believes in limited government and does not believe in taking action on climate change. Lack of state investment in the cities creates untenable financial situations in these urban areas, which rely on the state for infrastructure, education and health funding.

An economy under treat if water isn’t prioritized

Yet despite these challenges, cities are taking the lead across the country in addressing climate change. Jackson was awarded a $475,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in February 2021 to address climate change in poor communities and has created a municipal climate mitigation and adaptation task force with local partners. While these are great steps, they are not sufficient to tackle the challenges the city faces. Climate change is wreaking havoc on the South, especially Gulf Coast states, and significant investment from the state and private sector are needed.

A recent report by Risky Business, a group headed up by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and business leader Tom Steyer to look at and publicize the economic risks of climate change, exemplifies these risks. This study found that the economic boom currently experienced from Texas to the Atlantic coast is at risk from climate change, particularly from heat and extreme storms. Hurricanes, floods, heatwaves and droughts all tax the already stressed water infrastructure of the region. By not addressing the root cause as well as building more resilient infrastructure to replace it, the region’s economic boom could easily bust.

World Water Day is an important communications strategy to highlight different aspects of water and its importance. Valuing water means also having a clear focus on the consumers of water and how it’s used and valued up and down the supply chain. The most vulnerable communities, like those in Jackson, value clean, reliable water. The infrastructure challenges our water supplies face have been known for a long time. Antiquated and racist policies have prevented the necessary resources needed to improve and upgrade the Jackson’s infrastructure - it does not mean the city’s consumers value their water any less.

Image credit: Mississippi National Guard/Facebook

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner