I’m planning to start writing about the problems with Jackson’s water. This will consist of several articles in the near future.
I will do my best to write as objectively as possible, being fair to all parties involved, without any ax to grind. I hope eventually to be able to write intelligently about the cause of our problems and chart a reasonable path to correcting these problems.
I feel like I’m in a good position to accomplish this. I’ve been writing this column for over 30 years. I believe most readers have confidence in my ability to analyze complex issues and explain them clearly. I have many sources who trust me.
Building trust with sources is the key to good reporting and analysis. Over the last week, I’ve had lengthy conversations with a dozen or so individuals at all levels of government and involvement. I already have a decent understanding of the major issues but there is still much more research to be done.
Usually these conversations are “not for attribution,” meaning I can’t quote the person telling me the information, but I can use the knowledge. Many sources confuse “not for attribution” with “off the record.” Off the record means you can’t use the information at all, with or without attribution. So “off the record” is stricter than “not for attribution.”
During my conversations, I often ask questions and get the response, “That’s a really good question. Let me know if you find the answer.” I plan to find these answers and publish them in this column and move the ball down the field.
I am already discovering that the water problems can only be understood within the context of a bigger problem that affects all city operations. In this sense, the water problem is a microcosm of the challenges Jackson faces at this moment in time.
One aspect of this is the fact that mayor Antar Lumumba is a left-wing Democrat in a right-wing Republican state. Many of Jackson’s problems will require local and state cooperation and that is difficult because of politics.
It’s good politics for the Republicans to point their fingers at Jackson’s problems and blame incompetent Democratic leaders. “See what happens when you elect Democrats!” And it’s good politics for Lumumba to blame the right-wing Republican leaders for denying funds. “See what you get from these stingy right-wing Republicans. They hate Jackson. But I’ll stand up for you and fight them for you!”
Meanwhile, as this political show continues, tens of thousands of Jacksonians are scared to drink the water.
Let me tell you right off, I drink the Jackson water without hesitation. I don’t even think about it. But I am alone in my family of five who are far more cautious.
Let’s make it clear: I am not advocating that readers ignore these boil water alerts. But personally, I have enough experience with government regulations to know that overkill is the rule. We have some of the strictest water regulations in the world with constant testing and oversight. I’ll quit drinking the water when there’s an actual outbreak of water-borne illness, which, to my knowledge, has yet to happen.
Let’s take this most recent boil water alert which involves a failed “turbidity” test.
Turbidity is an indication of the presence of tiny particles suspended in the water. High turbidity means more particles, which could potentially be bacteria or microorganisms.
So turbidity doesn’t mean the water is bad, it just means the water has a higher chance of being bad.
When the tests actually show dangerous bacteria and microorganisms in the water, that’s when I’ll stop drinking it. After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
This is not unlike the covid issue, when there was a wide variation of caution displayed by people. Some people huddled in their homes in terror. Others, like me, kept right on going. People are different.
So far, nobody’s getting sick, but the restaurants are sucking wind.
If I choose to drink the water and get sick, I have nobody to sue but myself. A restaurant is in a different boat. If they ignore a turbidity warning they expose their restaurant to a lawsuit.
As a result, hundreds of Jackson restaurants are having to adopt a variety of procedures and expenses every time there is a boil water alert. These extra costs are destroying their profit margins.
And to make matters worse, they lose 20 percent of their business to neighboring cities during the boil water alert. These are the 20 percent of the people who are very fearful about water-borne illnesses. Losing 20 percent of your revenue while incurring huge extra costs will destroy Jackson’s restaurant industry. This is a crisis, yet nobody seems to care.
When covid hit, the federal government immediately stepped in with emergency relief funds. It saved my business and millions more.
But there has been no such local or state emergency relief plan for the hundreds of desperate restaurants who will soon be going out of business. Where is the leadership in this regard?
I can imagine there are some attorneys who are already planning to represent these restaurant owners in a class action lawsuit against the city for this extended boil water crisis.
The lack of city and state cooperation is compounded by the federal government’s drastic reduction in water system infrastructure funding over the last 20 years. As a result, boil water alerts are increasing all over the country. Jackson may be one of the worst, but it is not alone.
A perusal of the Internet failed to determine an average number of boil water alerts for a city the size of Jackson, but five system-wide alerts over the last 18 months is definitely not normal.
There was much hullabaloo over a four-day boil water alert in Austin earlier this year, but it was an isolated incident. Jackson’s boil water alert is now into its 18th day.
According to the website Louisiana Illuminator, Rapides Parish (Alexandria), Louisiana, had 141 boil water alerts over a two-year period. St. Tammany Parish (Covington/Slidell) had 200. So, Jackson is not alone. Overall, Louisiana had 1,000 boil water alerts each year, an average of one per municipality. I could find no such statistics for Mississippi.
A Texas study showed that boil water alerts are increasing rapidly in Texas — a 73 percent increase from 2011 to 2016. This problem is not unique to Jackson. Our preponderance of Yazoo Clay probably doesn’t help matters.
The good news is that we have very comprehensive and strict testing laws enforced by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health working in conjunction. So, we know the problem. Fixing it is far more difficult.