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Jackson mayor sees ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ in water crisis

ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Residents in Jackson, Mississippi, continue to be hit with boil water notices, water shortages and other water infrastructure problems that have lingered for decades.

Over the last two years, Jackson residents have been hit with more problems that left them without clean water for weeks at a time.

On Feb. 27, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba spoke with GMA3 about the latest updates on the efforts to solve this crisis.

GMA3: The issues here range from a lack of water pressure in schools. You also have storms knocking out water for residents. But you say that a lot of these issues, these water issues, they’ve been going back decades and really are deep rooted. So what’s going on here? What’s driving all of these problems and where is that infrastructure now?

MAYOR CHOKWE ANTAR LUMUMBA: Absolutely. So, I moved to Jackson in 1988. I fondly, or not fondly, distinctly remember in 1989 when we had a winter freeze that debilitated our water system. For some residents, their memory and reflection go back further than that. And so it’s been decades long. This is due to decades of neglect through a deliberate indifference or a willful neglect from state leadership to fund what many leaders in the city have been begging for years. I give my predecessors credit that they’ve been lifting this issue up, but these calls have been falling on deaf ears.

And so through the support of the Biden administration for the first time, we can say that there’s light at the end of this tunnel. We were able to receive, through a combination of the end-of-the-year omnibus bill and other federal resources, more than $800 million to go toward our system. And so now we have to build not only a sustainable and equitable and dependable system, but a system that the community is at the root of making sure that it reflects what they deserve and what they need.

GMA3: Let’s talk about the light at the end of that tunnel. We know that when it comes to fixing these types of problems, there’s no easy solution. So what kind of timeline are we looking at now?

LUMUMBA: Well, this isn’t a problem that we got into overnight. And so consequently, it won’t be a problem that we get out of overnight. We have more than 50% loss within our system. Standard within the industry is about 15% loss. And so it will be a significant undertaking just to replace pipes in addition to the capital improvements that are needed with the water treatment facility itself, making sure that it’s functional, and that it operates as it should. Fortunately, not only do we have the resources now, but we also have the technical expertise. We were able to reach an agreement where we have a third-party manager, a gentleman who has more than 40 years [experience] in water utilities. And so he will be directing the prioritization of those projects. We were able to receive support from the Army Corps which gave us a resiliency playbook. And so now we’re going to be executing on that. But we can’t design and defend. What I mean by that is we can’t design solutions and defend the merits of those solutions to our community. We have to make certain that they’re engaged from the very onset of this fix.

GMA3: And so now the city has received, what is it, more than $100,000 in water crisis donations. But you said in January that that money hadn’t been touched yet. So what’s going on with that money?

LUMUMBA: Yeah, so to be clear, in terms of the effort, the robust effort to support the residents of Jackson that has actually been in the millions of dollars, a lot of that has been reflected in water donations, providing residents water. At the very beginning of this crisis, the challenge was getting water to residents. The $100,000 was money that was provided in large part by UnitedHealthcare, a partner who works with the city in order to provide water filters. Those filters will help build confidence with residents in the quality of water as we make these repairs. The first step is to make sure that they have water first. And so the filters would not have been the best solution early on because there was no actual water coming out of the taps. And so these filters that we’re looking at because you don’t know what you might meet when you get in people’s homes, the variation of plumbing that takes place.

So we’re looking at pitchers that will be able to provide these residents so that when the water is consistently flowing through the tap, they’ll be able to fill the pitcher and they’ll have an extra layer of comfort in what they’re being provided. And so through our relationship, through the request of UnitedHealthcare, we’re grateful that they were a willing partner to meet us. And now that we’re at that phase, we just recently had additional conversations with them, making certain that what we purchase is consistent with their mission of supporting the city of Jackson.

GMA 3: And let’s talk about the city of Jackson. It is 80% black. And the EPA recently launched a civil rights investigation into whether state officials deprived Jackson of bipartisan infrastructure funds on the basis of race. So who or what is to blame for this?

LUMUMBA: Well, you know, as I said before, there’s been a deliberate indifference or a willful neglect of the needs of our city. I believe that that is being taken to task now and the investigation is ongoing. I think that not only based on Jackson being a blue city in a red sea and having the partisan divide, but it is also the blackest city in the nation. And so there are racial dynamics at play. And we have to ensure that the past, that we know Mississippi to be a part of, isn’t reflective of our present or our future. And so I do believe that this investigation is necessary.

I think that it is part and parcel of a process that we’ve seen for many decades now, generations where the state is not a willing partner. As we speak there are legislative measures going forward to attack the black leadership, not just me as mayor, but Black judges, attack Black prosecutors, and instead appoint leadership over a city similar to a system of apartheid. And so, you know, we want to make certain that we’re on the right side of history. And this isn’t the narrative of Mississippi and certainly not the narrative of Jackson, Mississippi.

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