Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith's proposal comes as state lawmakers weigh options for addressing the Jackson water crisis before the end of the 2021 legislation session. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

In response to the ongoing water crisis in Jackson, U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith introduced legislation Tuesday that would authorize federal funding for water infrastructure upgrades.

The Emergency Water Infrastructure Improvements Act taps three federal agencies to provide the city with a combination of loans, loan forgiveness and grants for water infrastructure projects. This federal response comes as state lawmakers weigh their options for addressing the crisis in the final weeks of the 2021 legislative session. 

“Providing safe and reliable drinking water is a local responsibility, but there are federal programs and funds available that can be used to address these types of problems. I cannot sit back and watch Jackson schools, businesses and residents go without water,” Hyde-Smith said in a press release announcing the bill. 

A historic winter storm in mid-February froze water plant equipment and burst many pipes in the capital city, and tens of thousands of residents — mostly Black — were without water for nearly three weeks. Today, city officials say “most” residents have had water service restored, though the entire city is still under a boil water notice. 

In her announcement, Hyde-Smith joined the chorus of elected officials misrepresenting the current crisis as solely a failure of local leadership.

“The weeks of hardship on Jackson residents is upsetting and completely unacceptable. Jackson’s water woes became a crisis with the February ice storm, but the hard truth is that the crisis was just waiting to happen after decades of neglecting necessary repairs and maintenance,” Hyde-Smith said. “It’s time to put that neglect behind us and work toward fixing the problem.”

Under Hyde-Smith’s bill, different levels and types of funding would come through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Economic Development Administration (EDA). Here’s what each of them would provide:

  • An additional $22 million in funding will be authorized for Jackson under the Army Corps of Engineers Section 219 program.

The Corps would be able to use these additional funds to assist in the design and construction of environmental infrastructure projects.

  • An additional $150 million in funding will be added to the EPA Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (DWSRF). With these funds, the EPA makes grants to States, which in turn issues loans to municipalities for drinking water improvements. 

It is unclear how much of this funding would be directed to Mississippi, much less Jackson. The entire state of Mississippi received just $26,315,000 of the $2.7 billion in DWSRF funding made available in 2020.

Public water systems deemed eligible for this additional funding will be designated as “disadvantaged communities,” which qualifies them for loan subsidization and principal forgiveness. Eligible systems are also required to be located within states that had at least five major disasters in 2020 and suffered damages to water systems in recent winter storms. 

The bill also stipulates that a maximum of 15% of these DWSRF funds can be used to purchase and install new water meters and modernize water billing systems. The city is currently running at a deficit of around $2 million each month in water collections revenue after a failed contract with the company Siemens left the city with more faulty water meters and billing issues than the city had before hiring them to overhaul these systems. 

  • The bill directs the Secretary of Commerce to direct no less than $25 million in EDA Economic Adjustment Assistance(EAA) grant funds to “eligible systems.”

This funding would come from EAA grant funding from the CARES Act that has yet to be appropriated. 

Other Mississippi lawmakers on Capitol Hill have yet to sign on to Hyde-Smith’s proposal. In her announcement, Hyde-Smith emphasized a need for bipartisan support to get the legislation passed.

“It is a responsible and worthwhile plan that will require the support of the Democrats in Congress and the administration to get it done, and I look forward to their cooperation,” Hyde-Smith said.

Will Stribling covers healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.