After intervention from the Mississippi State Department of Health, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, three different federal agencies, and water plant operators from Georgia, Florida and Louisiana, water pressure leaving the city of Jackson’s O.B. Curtis treatment plant is finally stable.
After the city’s largest water treatment facility failed last week, leaving most of the capital city’s 150,000-plus residents with little or no water pressure, officials have made drastic progress. Since the weekend, the reported pressure at the city’s largest water treatment facility has been at or near ideal levels, hovering around the goal of 87 pounds per square inch (PSI) according to city updates.
But with or without pressure, Jacksonians have had to boil their water to drink or brush their teeth for the last 40 days, as advised by the Mississippi State Department of Health. MSDH can’t lift the advisory until city officials collect 120 samples free of E. coli and coliform bacteria in two consecutive days.
A combination of heavy rain, flooding and low pressure stopped Jackson from conducting those samples over the last couple weeks, and now the city will spend the few days flushing out the “bad” water before it can resume sampling, Gov. Tate Reeves explained Wednesday. Reeves said it is unlikely that will happen by Friday.
Water quality and turbidity
MSDH first issued the citywide boil notice on July 29 because of turbidity, or cloudiness in Jackson’s water. While turbidity itself is not unsafe, MSDH explained, it can interfere with the disinfection process, which is why the city has to collect samples showing the system is free of bacteria.
City officials attributed the turbidity to a lime slurry operators used to balance the pH in the water.
Prior to the pause in sampling, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba emphasized that only a couple of the 120 samples came back showing bacteria, although the city never said whether there was a trend in which sampling locations didn’t yield clean results. Lumumba in early August called the turbidity a “technical violation,” and said it didn’t pose a public health threat.
When asked about that characterization, Anneclaire De Roos, an associate professor at Drexel University who specializes in environmental and occupational health, said that turbidity guidelines are a “line that shouldn’t be crossed,” and that federal drinking water restrictions are “not as conservative as they could be.”
“Turbidity is an indicator of whether there might be increased amounts of pathogens,” De Roos said. “The more particles in the water, that has been correlated with higher levels of pathogens like bacteria, viruses.”
She explained that it’s more efficient for a water system to test for turbidity rather than do separate tests for each pathogen. De Roos called the turbidity measurement recorded in MSDH’s boil water notice — between 1 and 2.5 turbidity units, compared to the legal threshold of 0.3 — “certainly high.”
Last week, when the city was struggling to produce adequate water pressure, the Environmental Protection Agency allowed Jackson to release water with higher than the allowed amount of turbidity to ensure there was enough pressure in the system for sanitary uses.
Just weeks before the July advisory, MSDH issued a separate citywide boil advisory on June 30 because of turbidity, which lasted a little over a week.
City officials have spent the last three days doing “investigative” samples to determine when it can resume official sampling, but so far there is no timeline.
Jackson also announced that MSDH issued two new licenses for workers at the O.B. Curtis plant on Tuesday, doubling the capacity for Class A operators at the facility.