Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said Tuesday that the city has had “many, many plans” to fund repairs for its beleaguered drinking water system.
But as of this week, Lumumba had not shared a comprehensive, long-term vision for improving the city’s water infrastructure system with state and federal leaders — the only ones who can pay for the needed repairs and replacements necessary to ensure safe, reliable water for the future.
Generations of Jackson elected officials neglected the capital city’s water system, culminating with its failure to produce running water last week. State and federal leaders, who for decades ignored city leaders’ dire warnings and funding requests, acted swiftly to restore water service to the city’s 150,000-plus residents.
With running water again flowing across the capital city, state leaders are now turning their focus to the critical negotiations about how — or even if — they can ensure Mississippi’s largest city won’t lose water again.
Jackson officials have been caught in a “fluid” planning cycle, city spokesman Justin Vicory explained. The city in recent years has planned spending based on what state and federal money is available. Meanwhile, state and federal officials say they need a plan from Jackson in order to free up funding.
Lumumba has, as recently as last week, mentioned creating a committee to formalize a new, long-term strategy. While staying quiet on many specifics, he has said that part of the new plan will include looking to contract out operations and maintenance services to support water treatment.
But without that plan in hand, state and federal officials are left with several unanswered fundamental questions as they begin to negotiate a long-term solution: Which repairs take top priority? Is a patchwork of repairs feasible, or is system replacement the only option? How much, even ballpark, might a long-term solution cost?
The mayor has repeatedly estimated that $1 billion would fix the city’s water system, although none of Jackson’s released spending plans tally up anywhere near that total.
During a meeting with the mayor and Mississippi’s congressional delegation at Jackson State University on Wednesday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan was asked about what constitutes a plan.
“When I think about a plan, I think about what’s required to unlock federal dollars,” Regan said. “If we want to have access to the state revolving loan fund resources, the (money from the State Revolving Loan Fund) that currently exists, being competitive for the bipartisan infrastructure dollars that will exist, we need to see a plan in place that demonstrates how those resources will be spent and what they will be spent on.”
Regan said that there’s currently $43 million in existing funds from the EPA’s State Revolving Loan Fund that Jackson has access to, and that Mississippi will receive over $26 million through the program later this year.
Both Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson and Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in recent days have called out city leadership for not producing a long-term water improvement plan. The city’s Democratic delegates at the state capitol, Senate leader Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, and House Speaker Philip Gunn have all also said they haven’t seen a plan.
“I have not seen a plan. I’ve heard from the mayor and others that they have a plan, that they’re working on it, but I have not physically seen a plan with my own eyes,” Thompson told Mississippi Today last week. “… It would be difficult to get the kind of resources needed to fix the Jackson water system without a verifiable plan.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve never received a real plan from the city of Jackson on how to improve their water system so that the state could continue funding it,” Reeves said on Monday.
The mayor disputed those assertions in a press conference on Tuesday. And in response to a Mississippi Today public records request, the mayor’s office sent several documents on Tuesday that lay out short- and medium-range water system funding ideas. The longest term spending published in this trove of newly released documents is from a 2020 report that laid out a water spending plan of five years.
Responding to Reeves specifically, Lumumba on Tuesday pointed to a letter he sent the governor on Mar. 3, 2021, asking for $47 million in repairs after last year’s winter storms knocked out water service to thousands of Jacksonians. Hosemann, Gunn, Thompson and Hinds County’s legislative delegation were all copied on the letter. State officials, Lumumba said, never replied to the letter.
“I know a good part of the narrative has been a lack of a plan for the city,” Lumumba said. “You, the media, have asked questions about that, and we’ve shared that we’ve had many, many plans.”
Lumumba’s office, for the first time on Tuesday, shared several documents with Mississippi Today that itemize specific needs, including improvements at the city’s largest water treatment plant, replacements of water main lines, and pay raises for the city’s water operators.
But it remains unclear what Jackson’s current spending proposal is.
One of the documents the city shared with Mississippi Today on Tuesday was a 45-page commissioned report from three private engineering firms that lays out $80 million in proposed water spending over five years. The $80 million in projects consists mostly of distribution line and water main repairs, and also includes some elevated water tank improvements.
A separate document the city released is a plan Lumumba said he presented to Hinds County’s legislative delegation last year, prioritizing spending of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act money. The slideshow lays out about $21 million in proposed repairs to the O.B. Curtis water plant, about $15 million in fixes for J.H Fewell water plant and about $34 million in distribution system repairs.
Another guiding document the mayor shared with Mississippi Today on Tuesday is a list of repairs outlined by the Environmental Protection Agency in an Administrative Order on Consent the agency entered into with Jackson in 2021. While the list includes deadlines for each repair, Lumumba said the EPA has been flexible in negotiating timelines.
The mayor added Tuesday that the city expects to finish rolling out its new water meters – which have been at the root of Jackson’s inability to bill customers, leading to a $90 million settlement with Siemens – by March of next year.
About an hour after Mississippi Today filed a records request for the plans the mayor discussed Tuesday, the city provided several documents.
Yet three weeks ago, when another reporter asked for the city’s plan, the mayor made no reference to those documents, instead saying, “We look forward to sharing our fully-outlined plan – one that is supported by the expert advice of the U.S. Water Alliance and the Kellogg Foundation.”
When the reporter, WJTV’s Richard Lake, asked the mayor’s office for a copy of any plan, Lake was told by a city employee, “You’ll need to file a records request.”
Ten days later, the request came back in the city’s automated filing system as “no records exist.” When Lake asked for clarification from a city employee, the reporter was told, simply: “There is a plan that is under review.”
Meanwhile, many people outside Jackson City Hall — Democrats and Republicans, Black and white officials, state and federal officials, reporters and Jackson taxpayers — are increasingly asking why the city has not produced a plan, leading to questions of whether the city can run the water system by itself any longer.
“If (the city’s) plan demonstrates that they can operate a system and get the state health department’s approval as well as the enforcement order from EPA lifted, then we’re off to the races,” Thompson said. “But you can’t put the lives of your citizens at risk … we just, in good conscience, can’t do that. If that’s not available, you then look, perhaps, at an alternative management.
“… I understand that there are some other interests out here that want to help the city get the plan done,” Thompson continued. “As soon as it’s completed, I would encourage that plan to be distributed as widely as possible. That, too, instills confidence in the public that something is being done.”
Editor-in-chief Adam Ganucheau contributed reporting for this story.
Editor’s note: Mississippi Today is one of five Jackson-based newsrooms working together since 2021 as Mississippi Spotlight, a local news collaborative which is independently funded by Microsoft Corp. and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi. The collaborative’s current project — agreed upon by the cohort’s newsroom leaders, independent of guidance from the supporting grant makers — is the Jackson water crisis. As is our editorial policy since we launched in 2016, donors to Mississippi Today have no influence or control over editorial decisions.