While officials on the state and local level continue to discuss the best options for a long-term fix of Jackson’s water problems, Politico is reporting that on the federal level House Democrats may designate as much as $200 million for the beleaguered city water system.
The national publication reported that Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, who represents the state’s 2nd District, which includes much of Jackson, said he is pushing for an appropriation of $200 million. The funds would be part of legislation to continue funding the federal government past Sept. 30, presumably meaning the money could be appropriated soon if agreement is reached on the bill.
The money, Politico reported, would go straight to the city and bypass the Republican leadership of the state.
Often, the Republican leaders of the state and the Democratic leaders of Jackson, the state’s capital and largest city, have been at odds on how to fix the water system that serves about 180,000 customers.
Thompson, though, also has questioned the city’s ability to develop a plan to fix the system. The system had been under a boil water notice for much of the summer, and in late August both state and federal emergency declarations were issued when many customers of the system lost pressure and the entire system was placed under a strict boil water notice.
Water pressure has been restored and the boil water notice lifted. But the cost of long-term repairs to a distribution system that is more than 100 years old could be $1 billion, some have estimated.
Both Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Philip Gunn said talks are ongoing on the long-term fix.
“The long-term solution is a little more challenging,” Gunn said, compared to the “temporary” fix that restored water pressure and lifted the boil water notice.
Millsaps College, which often is listed as one of the top small schools in the nation, recently wrote state leaders calling for a special session of the Legislature to try to develop a long-term fix. Millsaps, the letter said, is waiting for permits to be approved to drill its own water well, but still believed a long-term fix of the city system would be in the best interest of the school and the city of Jackson.
”The issues related to the city’s water system, infrastructure and safety concerns present ongoing challenges to our ability to safely and adequately provide a world-class educational experience to the students who come to Millsaps from across the country and around the globe,” Millsaps President Robert Pearigen wrote. “We are not alone in this, as our colleagues at Belhaven University and Jackson State University are similarly impacted.”
Pearigen added, “Our efforts to recruit students to Millsaps have always included the promotion of the city as a vibrant, exciting and engaging location, full of opportunity and promise for students during their collegiate career and after they graduate and enter the workforce. Prospective and even current students and their parents are now asking questions about the infrastructure of the city and the college’s ability to provide a safe and healthy learning environment.”
Others also have called for a special session. But Thompson said on the Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast earlier this month it might be best to wait for the regular session of the Mississippi Legislature to deal with the issue, giving time to develop more consensus on who will govern the system going forward.
Gov. Tate Reeves, who has the sole authority to call a special session, has not given any indication he plans to do so. But the governor has indicated that a long-term fix could mean the operation of the system is removed from the city of Jackson.
Some advocates have called for both state and local officials being bypassed, and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assume oversight of the system.
Whether those issues would be addressed if $200 million is set aside for the Jackson water system remains to be seen.
Providing help for the Jackson water system in the September budget bill seems to also have support of some Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation.
In early September, Hyde-Smith, who is on the Senate Appropriations Committee, wrote a letter to the Biden administration asking that it include funds for the city of Jackson.
“The same day that the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator and other White House officials traveled to Mississippi to ‘ensure’ Jackson had everything needed to restore its water quality, OMB (the Office of Management and Budget) submitted an emergency funding request addressing a host of issues deemed critical by the Biden administration. The city of Jackson was not included,” Hyde-Smith said. “Jackson’s water crisis is nothing short of a full-blown emergency, and it’s disappointing and concerning that the city’s water and wastewater infrastructure needs did not make it in the administration’s $47.1 billion emergency request.”
Hosemann said he recently met jointly with Thompson and Republican Rep. Michael Guest, who also represents a portion of Jackson, to discuss possible solutions.