Jackson has clean water again, after seven weeks. That may be the longest time period a major city has ever gone without clean water. This must never happen again.
It is clear the management of Jackson’s water system must change, but exactly how?
Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership has called for the establishment of a regional water system. Such regional systems are a recent trend nationwide.
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For instance, Kentucky has gone from 3,000 water systems to less than 800 over the last couple of decades.
If regional systems can allow economies of scale, especially in the application and procurement of federal and state funds, then this could be a positive thing. But if a regional system just creates one more cumbersome layer of bureaucracy, a regional system would be counter-productive.
Former Governor Haley Barbour ushered in a regional system for the coast counties after Hurricane Katrina and hundreds of millions of dollars followed. What also followed was a huge amount of waste, redundancy and water lines to nowhere.
Madison County and its cities are doing just fine with small systems such as Bear Creek and small well-based municipal systems. Rankin County recently created the West Rankin Utility Authority. Does it really make sense forcing these small, successful utility districts into a massive greater Jackson regional authority?
Not to mention the politics. Creating a new stand-alone Jackson utility district would be a piece of cake. But forcing dozens of successful independent utility districts into a new regional authority would be a big political ask, so big it could get stalled and never happen.
I would recommend that we take one step at a time. Let’s first get Jackson water out of the city’s hands by creating a new special utility district with an independent board. The statute for such entities already exists and would need only minor tweaking.
One of the tweaks would be who appoints the board. The key is to have the board in line with the funding sources so there’s no political conflict. Have one board member appointed by the governor, one by the lieutenant governor, one by the speaker, one by Congressman Bennie Thompson and one by the Jackson city council.
Once this is up and running, state and local leaders can address the greater issue of regionalization at a later point. The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
The issue of regionalization doesn’t just apply to water. You can make an argument that the entire Jackson metro area should be regionalized into one government entity. Many cities have done this successfully.
Nashville is one example. That city consolidated with the county in 1963. Today, Nashville is one of the most booming cities in the United States. New Orleans and Honolulu are other examples of city-county consolidation.
One step more dramatic would be to merge not just the city and the county but all the other counties and municipalities in the greater metro area such as Rankin, Madison, Clinton, Ridgeland, etc.
Such a move is entirely within the domain of the state government. Cities and counties are creatures of the state government and subject to whatever city and county lines the state government deems best.
Such a bold move would put Mississippi on the map and be a bold move that could potentially work
Unfortunately, don’t hold your breath. The state leadership has its voter base in Madison and Rankin County and many of those voters don’t want to have anything to do with Jackson.
Remember when the Iron Curtain fell? There was much opposition to German reunification because East Germany was so poor. Many West Germans didn’t want the responsibility of rehabilitating East Germany. So it is with many Madison and Rankin county voters vis-a-vis Jackson.
Besides that political reality, you have many entrenched city and county officials who wouldn’t look kindly at losing their positions.
And it may not even work. Metro government could just be a big flop, creating a more remote, bigger government less in touch with its constituency. There’s something to be said for smaller, local governmental entities.
One thing is clear. No matter what. The Jackson’s water supply management needs to change. The existing structure has proven to be a disaster.
Chokwe Antar Lumumba was the youngest Jackson mayor ever at age 34. We were all hoping for a bright young energetic mayor. Instead we got gross inexperience. Making matters worse, Lumumba refused to work collaboratively with the city council. It was his way or the highway.
As a result, Lumumba shoulders the blame for what will go down as the worst self-inflicted injury in the history of Jackson. When you lead in a dictatorial fashion, you can’t blame the problems on other people.
It’s always the cover up that gets you and this situation is a perfect example of that. The smoking gun is the 24-page March 30th, 2020 investigation that Lumumba never revealed to the public or even his city council. In fact, the report never saw the light of day until after Lumumba’s re-election primary victory.
This was not just any old EPA report. This was the mother of all EPA reports. It was conducted by the EPA’s National Enforcement Investigations Center. The regional EPA office in Atlanta was so worried about Jackson, they called in the big dogs from D.C.
The report revealed:
— The city of Jackson failed to fully implement lead and copper tap water monitoring requirements, including materials evaluation conditions and sample collection procedures.
— The city of Jackson failed to provide documentation regarding the change in source from groundwater to surface water, and associated disinfection differences, in October 2014.
—The city of Jackson failed to conduct required public education tasks and failed to provide required consumer notifications related to lead action level exceedances.
— The city of Jackson did not provide lead and copper results for both monitoring periods in its consumer confidence reports for the years 2016 or 2018.
—Disinfection issues were found at both the O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell WTPs. Maximum residual disinfectant levels (MRDLs) for chloramines were exceeded at both plants. UV disinfection devices were found to be offline for significant periods of time at both plants.
—EPA inspectors observed infrastructure issues with the distribution system and storage tanks.
—Some of the continuous monitoring equipment at the 0.8. Curtis WTP was found to be inoperable, or providing unreliable, non-calibrated, and potentially inaccurate readings.
— EPA inspectors found inadequate operator staffing at the 0.8. Curtis and J.H. Fewell WTPs and the groundwater portion of the system.
—One of the soda ash silos that was constructed as a result of the February 12, 2016, MSDH-issued compliance plan collapsed in early 2018. This incident put the lives of two operators at risk.
—EPA inspectors found operations and maintenance issues at the groundwater system.
—Disinfection byproduct monitoring was not conducted for chlorite and chlorate. EPA inspectors found operations and maintenance issues at the 0.8. Curtis WTP.
If you are reading online, you can click on the attached full EPA report. The details are much scarier than the summaries.
But instead of clanging the alarm, Mayor Lumumba swept the problem under the rug. The staffing shortages and the lack of maintenance got even worse. Eventually and predictably, the entire system failed, causing the entire city to lose its water supply.
Massive state and federal intervention returned clean drinking water to Jackson, but only after a seven-week crisis. Lead and copper issues remain a serious concern.