📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
In light of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that was recently approved by the U.S. Senate, currently awaiting passage in the House, this week I want to get into the weeds on what this bill could mean for Southern cities beset by water crises. Jackson, Mississippi, made headlines back in February when an unprecedented winter storm hit the region, buckling the city's aging water infrastructure and leaving residents for weeks and months at a time without access to a water supply or adequate water pressure.
This new legislation, however, has the potential to be a difference-maker for Jackson and cities like it—and we want to figure out how.
That brings me to my guest this week, Dr. Mukesh Kumar, a professor of urban and regional studies at Jackson State University and the former director of planning and development for the city of Jackson. He explains what's behind a public water system's social contract, and what begins to happen once that contract is broken as a result of a dilapidated system.
Xander Peters: XP: In what ways was Jackson set up for the type of institutional failure we saw during February's deep freeze?
Mukesh Kumar: We have well over 111 square miles of city to provide services to. Now, we're down to about 160,000 residents. That translates to about 60,000 to 70,000 households. Whenever you have that level of density, it almost becomes a no-brainer that at some point in time, you're going to run into serious service delivery issues. And then on top of it, the other major problem is that when the Clean Water Act was passed, the federal government basically made a whole lot of money available to many municipalities to build their public water systems. But even at that point in time, nobody figured out how you would maintain the system in the longer term. A lot of that was happening in the '70s, early '80s. Most of that stuff is about 50 years old. That's what you're seeing not only in Jackson, but in many cities across the country. … When the hard freeze hit [in February], [there were] already some ongoing issues and then suddenly, you find yourself into a perpetual weather event.
XP: So, that was the straw that broke the camel's back. What do you think should be done going forward?
MK: Generally, I think most municipal water supply systems or public works systems, they are going to need help. When we say help, largely, it's going to be two areas. One is financing of infrastructure, because quite a bit of it is going to have to be replaced. Many municipalities simply do not have the resources to be able to do that. And then on top of it, it also requires some amount of technical expertise—which, again, the federal government probably is in a pretty good position to provide.
When you turn on your tap, you expect clean water to come out, and then you pay your bill once a month and expect that somehow these two things should work like clockwork, and there is nothing else that's happening behind it. [However], it's a very complex system that people have to maintain and operate. If you don't have the adequate amount of resources, adequate ability to systematically think about it, it's always going to be a challenge. The way I see it right now, without federal assistance, this is going to be a tall order. I don't see how many American cities actually come out of this water crisis.
XP: What other cities across the country are facing similar issues as Jackson?
MK: Every water system is going to have two major components. You have a distribution system, and then a production system. When you look at Baltimore, or Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, these are all cities who have had aging infrastructure, and a lot of them actually also faced issues with lead contamination. In each of those cases, you could say that a lot of the infrastructure was built prior to the Clean Water Act in the early '70s. They did not build [these systems] according to specifications. But since then, they have been making some investment, and some have done a better job than the others. But then you also have the other set of challenges in which you have the water intake problem. Atlanta is a classic example of where water intake itself is a bit of a problem because they draw their water from a watershed that has lost quite a bit of extra water and carrying capacity…
Now, Jackson is not like that in the sense that we have not had drought that directly threatened the amount of water that is available for cleaning. Our problem has always been more in line with the older industrial American cities. We have created a system which probably in its best case scenario, at least in parts of Jackson, could support a significantly higher number of hookups. But as [industrial] cities have lost population, there's not as many customers to support the system with. How you plan a water system also needs to be planned according to how the population is moving. Now, if you don't do that, and these two things don't match with each other, then you start running into severe problems, [such as funding pitfalls as a municipality's tax base shrinks, like Jackson's.]
XP: So, it's as if they built Rome with the expectation that the Romans would be there, but they aren't? Correct me if I'm wrong, Dr. Kumar.
MK: At the heart of the problem is that lack of planning for operations and maintenance in the '70s. Because for the first time in the history of the country, you had a major switch from private water providers to public water systems. Prior to that, most of the United States had private utility companies, which provided water. With the Clean Water Act, it sort of became important that they had to build a much larger scale, and municipalities got involved with it, the federal government funded it, and, as you know, we ended up with public water systems.
We know that in some areas, cities have declined; In other parts of the country, they have come back and they have a significantly higher population than what we had before. All of that is going to end up playing a role, so I hesitate to say something like what you just did. I would say that in the '70s, when people were starting to think systematically about large scale water systems, they all ended up doing some projection that this is the population I'm looking at. And in most cases, people simply looked at whatever their population trend was over the last 30, 40 years. They said, well, based on this over the next 20 years, I expect my population to be whatever, 1 million or so. Then it turns out that the '70s was also the time when cities across the country started declining. Many cities started losing population, so all of them ended up with massive water systems without other people, which could potentially support a significantly higher number of people. You end up with an under supported public water system with over capacity.
XP: If a community water system begins to crumble, what happens next?
MK: When people live in cities, they have expectations of a certain level of service and quality of life. That's what everyone expects from any city. When water systems start crumbling… The community starts to lose trust in its institutions. Once you start losing trust in institutions, it's really hard to build it back up. That's when you end up with people simply giving up and not expecting anything. When that happens, you sort of lose your connection to the community, the ties to the city that you're dealing with.