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Flooding broke open Jackson's water crisis, but it can't be disentangled from race, experts say

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/1/2022 Nada Hassanein, USA TODAY
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The water crisis in Mississippi’s capital city cannot be disentangled from racial inequities, experts say.

About 150,000 residents in Jackson were without safe water Wednesday. Excessive rainfall led to flooding of the Pearl River and problems at one of the town’s two water-treatment plants, causing the pumps to fail. Low water pressure has left many without water to drink, brush teeth or flush toilets.

Residents in the majority-Black city have been on a boil-water notice since late July, and they have faced water supply problems in the past, from lead concerns to a cold snap last year that left residents without water for weeks.

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Jackson, long beleaguered by a water crisis, has struggled with an aging water infrastructure in chronic neglect, experts say, reflecting how communities of color take the brunt of underinvestment. Today's crisis is part of an ongoing one that illustrates how America’s legacy water systems are failing low-income people of color.

“It's shameful. There is no question in my mind that if Jackson was 70% white, there would be a greater investment in water infrastructure,” said Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and author of “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.”

Background: Biden approves emergency declaration amid Jackson water crisis

More: How Jackson's water system made it a focus in America's infrastructure crisis

Perry said Black cities are consistently “devalued,” putting communities on the line.

More than 80% of Jackson's residents are Black, the result of a gradual exodus of white, wealthier residents into the suburbs after the racial integration of public schools in 1970. About a quarter of Jackson’s residents live in poverty.

The city has lost tax revenue, and over the years water service has gotten increasingly expensive and the infrastructure harder and pricier to maintain. 

“There has been an overall lack of investment in infrastructure,” said Perry, an expert in economic inclusion and equity.

He said infrastructure is a shared responsibility among local and state leaders, which can make it difficult to coordinate investments.

“Inevitable crises, storms will come. However, Jackson always ends up taking two steps back whenever there's a crisis,” he said. “This is the quintessential example of how structural racism plays out in this country."  

Earlier this year: Will coronavirus relief money fix Jackson's water and sewer system?

Troubled waters in other cities, like Flint

Aaron Packman, Northwestern University environmental engineering professor, said the problem is systemic and complex. Communities of color are often “systematically undersupported” and see increasing infrastructure failures.

He pointed to a 2016 Government Accountability report that analyzed cities with declining populations and water infrastructure problems. The report cites majority-Black Flint, Michigan, as an example of the consequences of chronic underinvestment in water infrastructure, Packman said.

Flint, where water was discovered to be contaminated with lead after regulatory failures at multiple levels, has also seen white flight and gradual population loss.

The city is not “unique in the challenges it faces,” the report says.

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“This is a common challenge in under-resourced communities, or especially in communities where the population and the economic base has been decreasing over time. A lot of those communities are communities of color,” Packman said. “It means that we end up with a lot of people of color who are in vulnerable positions, who don't have a strong political voice and who are not able to get the investments that are needed.”

There should be multiple mechanisms in place to protect drinking water supplies, Packman said, so when a crisis like Jackson’s happens, it signifies multiple failures.

In Flint, “people were not listened to,” he said. “And I'm not sure that this importance of governance, of shared responsibility for safe water, has been learned well enough.”

Lingering lead: Biden plan to eliminate old pipes highlights longstanding contamination in communities of color

Warning signs were ignored

Experts such as Perry warned that while the floodwaters allowed for the system to tip over, they weren’t the cause – rather, the latest in a series of payment and management challenges, contamination and climate threats are to blame.

We had many warning signs as we approached the crisis and points of intervention that could have been taken but were ignored,” said Joan Casey, an environmental epidemiologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.

In the first quarter of 2020, nearly half a billion gallons of raw sewage leaked into the Pearl River, along with close to 6 billion gallons of minimally treated sewage, the Mississippi Clarion Ledger reported. 

Overflows have long been a problem for the state's largest city, the newspaper reported. The Environmental Protection Agency has watched Jackson closely and put the city under a consent decree in 2012.

In 2016, the state health department issued a lead warning.

And last year, a cold snap across the South in areas not accustomed to freezing conditions left the town’s pipes frozen and residents without running water for a month. It wasn't the first time.

Natalie Exum, an assistant scientist of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the problems with Jackson's water system have been known for a long time.

“This is not a problem that happens overnight,” she said.

Communities that are majority-Black or Hispanic often lack the resources to get those problems fixed, she said.  

Climate action is critical for health equity: Community health clinics are key - and need more support.

Climate change threatens to bring more crises

Climate change will continue to test fragile infrastructure in communities of color like Jackson.

“This is not going to be the last time something like this happens in the United States, because we have an increasingly unpredictable climate, and we have aging infrastructure – and we have widening wealth gaps,” she said. “The climate crisis is going to present many additional opportunities for us to learn from the past.”

The nation's water systems are highly fragmented, variable and localized, said Joseph Kane, also a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies environmental and water infrastructure problems.

That means poorer communities, often those of color like Jackson, struggle to pay for water management and aging systems, especially in the face of climate change. A lack of federal and state aid has led to privatization, which sends costs to ratepayers who see their bills rise, he explained.

That's "no accident," he said.

EPA: People of color face disproportionate harm from climate change

"Places like Detroit or Flint (are) in this category as well, where the infrastructure concerns are inextricably tied to the economic concerns of the jurisdiction," he said. "Jackson is one of the most impoverished areas or cities in the country. And so their ratepayers don't necessarily have the same ability as ratepayers do in some other parts of the country."

Pump failure at Mississippi plant causes water crisis © AP Pump failure at Mississippi plant causes water crisis

The federal infrastructure bill passed in 2021 will provide an infusion of financial support. Still, the money will take time to trickle down, and "that isn't going to automatically reverse what's been happening over the last few decades," Kane said.

Perry worries that state leadership will not equitably distribute those federal dollars when they're available.

Epidemiologist Maureen Lichtveld, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health, said the most important lessons the nation continues to overlook from past disasters are rooted in preparedness investment and strengthening systems to increase community resilience.

Those lessons, she said, could have been learned from past system and regulatory failures – from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans after years of neglecting the city's levee system to regulatory failures in Flint, Michigan.

“The most pronounced lessons not learned continue to be not learned,” she said.

Reach Nada Hassanein at nhassanein@usatoday.com or on Twitter @nhassanein_.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Flooding broke open Jackson's water crisis, but it can't be disentangled from race, experts say

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