Where Next after Jackson? U.S. Cities Face Looming Water Crises

12 Sep 2022  |  Reese Tisdale

For the second time in as many years, Jackson, Mississippi’s 164,000 residents face a water crisis. In 2021, Mississippi residents were crippled by what we now call the Texas Winter Storm – some had no water access for up to a month. And just last week, politicians announced that the water treatment system is inoperable, and residents of the state capital will be forced to boil water for the foreseeable future. 

This isn’t the first time a U.S. city has faced a water crisis. We know the tragedy of Flint, Michigan all too well, and the writing is on the wall that more significant challenges lie before us without sustained infrastructure investment. While the pundits point fingers from one stakeholder to another, the reality is that U.S. water infrastructure is failing those who can least afford it.  

The takeaways are myriad, but a few stand out:

Water quality dollars from the “Feds” is targeted directly at cities like Jackson. While the Safe Drinking Water Act’s definition of “disadvantaged community” varies from state-to-state, Jackson meets all the criteria. With 24.5% of its residents living in poverty and per capita income of US$22,825 (according to the U.S. Census Bureau), there is little hope that individual households will be able to take on rising costs associated with water quality. As far back as 2015, drinking water quality tests in Jackson have shown lead levels more than 50% higher than the acceptable limits. For this reason, among others, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates approximately US$15 billion towards  helping “disadvantaged communities” address water infrastructure challenges, including the removal of lead and PFAS. Bluefield has forecasted lead mitigation to exceed US$32 billion for the most “disadvantaged communities” in the U.S., as a whole. The problem does not start or stop in Jackson.

Water is only 41% of the challenge in Mississippi. Just over ten years ago, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Justice, and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) announced a Clean Water Act settlement with the city of Jackson. The state’s largest and capital city agreed to make improvements to its sewer systems to mitigate the reported 2,300 sanitary sewer overflows, prohibited bypasses, operation and maintenance failures, and effluent limit violations. While the current crisis surrounds drinking water supplies and distribution, wastewater challenges, like much of the U.S., make up the majority of capital expenditures, for now. From 2022 to 2030, Mississippi utilities are forecasted to invest US$6.64 Billion into water and wastewater assets. Of this, the 59% is directed towards wastewater, which is in line with the rest of the nation.

What is traditionally out of sight, out of mind can be no longer. Deferred infrastructure investment on 2.2 million miles of drinking water pipes and 1.8 million miles of wastewater pipes is contributing to growing longer-term financial, health, and affordability issues for U.S. cities and stakeholders. Average water losses across the U.S. are at approximately 14%, according to Bluefield’s report, Sizing the Cost of Water Losses to U.S. Utilities. which translates into an estimated US$6.06 billion loss, annually. With every day, underfunded cities like Jackson face a mounting bill to keep up with aging assets, whether they be drinking water treatment facilities, wastewater treatment plants, or the thousands of miles of underground pipe networks.     

The time is now to invest in water infrastructure, or rather, as we have not invested in a sustained manner, we must catch up now.

Rather than investing post-crisis and in a reactive manner, a sustained effort toward water infrastructure investment is critical.

Is this the tip of the iceberg? There is a whole convergence of water-related challenges facing water utilities right now—drought, water rights’ disputes, aging infrastructure, water quality issues, algae blooms—the list goes on and on. Rather than investing post-crisis and in a reactive manner (e.g., American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, IIJA), a sustained effort toward infrastructure investment is critical. The federal government’s direct investment into U.S. water & wastewater infrastructure peaked in 1976 (unbelievably 46 years ago). Since then, it has fallen to 4% of the total, leaving states and localities, both red and blue, rich and poor, to fend for themselves. 

The wakeup call stretches far beyond Jackson and beyond water. California and Texas face rolling blackouts because of extreme heat and drought stricken hydroelectric dams. Entire train lines in well-heeled Boston, Massachusetts are shut down for a month to address systemic failures. The commonality among all of these coast-to-coast problems is that disadvantaged populations are impacted at far greater scale.