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Jackson residents want long-term solution to water crisis

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Posted at 10:47 AM, Oct 28, 2022

Clean running water can sometimes be a luxury in Jackson, Mississippi.

“Being in Jackson, we’re so desensitized to the water issue; it’s probably more of a huger issue outside of Jackson than it is here,” said Ryan Portis, a barber in Jackson.

Portis is a Jackson native and has owned his barbershop for about four years.

“Right now, I do use water out of the tap to wash our hands and flush the toilet,” Portis said. “I do a shave, a hot towel shave, and put a hot towel on your face, so we use the bottled water to steam the hot towels.”

Jackson has been subjected to citywide boil water advisories this year.The most recent advisory lasted more than 40 days after samples showed cloudy water, which raised concerns that unsafe levels of bacteria might be in the supply.

Jackson's main water treatment facility is also now back online after heavy flooding overwhelmed its ability to treat water in August. That left the roughly 150,000 people who live in Mississippi's capital city without running water for several days.

Government leaders now say the water is safe to drink, but Portis still won't drink the water because of the years the city has struggled to supply clean water to its residents.

The EPA says there have been roughly 300 boil water advisories in just the last two years in Jackson.

Jeff Good, who runs three restaurants in Jackson, said the water crisis has made it hard for those in the food industry.

"We have had our worst month ever in the history of the restaurants, worst that COVID this past month— with a higher loss than ever," Good said.

Good, however, believes in the emergency repairs made to the water treatment plant in recent months.

"I do trust the water and it’s because I know too much about how the water works," he said. "I’ve been to the plant I’ve seen how the processes work."

Good said that if a boil water notice is in place, his restaurants sell canned drinks and ships in ice, along with boiling water used in the food. 

He also filters all the water that goes into the food and drinks he sells. 

While Jackson has had its fair share of water issues, it's not the only city in the country facing the problem.

"A lot of our water treatment plants were built in the 1970s or 1980s, so you’re looking at 50 years old. The pipes, however, can be much older. Chicago, where I am, the pipes are 100 years old or more," said Aaron Packman, a water infrastructure expert at Northwestern University.

Packman said he's concerned about other cities, which like Jackson, have seen their population shrink in recent decades. That drop in population leads to a shrinking tax base that is used to help keep up with the costs of maintaining water systems.

"The core challenge is (that) most people don’t realize the effort and the cost and investment required to get water to their home," Packman said.

Jackson’s mayor and Mississippi’s governor are at odds over who will oversee the city’s water system going forward.

“Ongoing, we need to figure out as a community how this is going to operate," Good said.

The federal government has launched a civil rights investigationinto whether state leaders used federal money in a way that discriminated against the majority-Black city.

Whatever the plan, Portis hopes it can unlock the potential he sees in his city. 

“To be in Jackson, you have a love that no one can explain when you live here," Portis said. "It has a hold of you."