Sunday, September 4, 2022

Jackson Mississippi has no running water

Pumps failed at the O.B. Curtis water treatment plant in Jackson, Mississippi in the latest flooding event. This plant is the city’s largest water-treatment facility and it’s failure has cause very low water pressure and poor-quality water throughout the city. The plant had operated for weeks on it backup pumps after its main pumps were damaged in July. Jackson’s water system has struggled over the years to hold up during severe weather. 

Jackson has roughly 150,000 residents and is the most populous city in Mississippi, but has been shrinking for decades.  A shrinking population and a disinclination to increase water rates to invest in infrastructure left a decaying water system. This is an extreme example at what has been happening in older shrinking cities throughout the nation. 

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infrastructure reviews and evaluates the condition and performance of American infrastructure. Below are highlights culled and clipped from the report on the nations Drinking Water infrastructure from the latest report.

Our nation’s drinking water infrastructure system is made up of 2.2 million miles of underground pipes that deliver drinking water to millions of people. Though there are more than 148,000 active drinking water systems in the nation, just 9% of all community water systems serve 78% of the population- over 257 million people. The rest of the nation is served by small water systems (about 8%) and private wells (about 14% of the population). There is a water main break every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water is lost each day to leaks and water main breaks.

This sounds really bad, but the grade for water infrastructure has actually gone up in the past four years from a D+ to a C-. The ASCE tells us there are signs of progress as federal financing programs expand and water utilities raise rates to reinvest in their networks. This action was spurred in large part by the growing public awareness of water system problems like Flint, Michigan, increasing incidents of broken pipes, boil water advisories and others incidents that has made the public aware that water infrastructure cannot be ignored.

 The ASCE estimates less than 1% of the water pipes were planned for replacement in 2020. To maintain these systems properly around 1.3% of pipes should be replaced each and every year. In 2019, about a third of all utilities had a developed and implemented what they label a robust asset management program to help prioritize their capital and operations/maintenance investments, but not Jackson, Mississippi.

Funding for drinking water infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing need to address the aging infrastructure. Despite the growing need for drinking water infrastructure, the federal government’s share of capital spending in the water sector fell from 63% in 1977 to 9% of total capital spending in 2017.

A recent survey found that 47% of the maintenance work undertaken by utilities is in reaction to a failure or water main break and not part of a preventive maintenance plan. This is no way to maintain an essential system. The EPA has regulates public drinking water supply through the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). The EPA sets national health-based standards and determines the enforceable maximum levels for contaminants in drinking water. In 2019, the number of public water systems with health-based violations was 15% lower than in 2017.

Water utilities face the increasing challenge of keeping pace with emerging contaminants such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) which would require additional treatment to remove, lead and copper in drinking water, and the regulatory requirements needed to remain in compliance with the SDWA. Utilities in more rural communities and shrinking urban areas like Jackson have a smaller rate-payer base, which results in less revenue and more difficulty in meeting the requirements of the SDWA and to maintain aging systems.

In addition, as the nation faces more frequent extreme weather events due to a changing climate. The America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 required community water systems serving more than 3,300 people to develop or update risk assessments and emergency response plans. The law sets deadlines, all before December 2021, by which water systems must complete and submit the risk assessment and emergency response plans to the EPA.

Under the recently passed Infrastructure Bill, EPA will allocate $7.4 billion to states, Tribes, and territories for 2022, with nearly half of this funding available as grants or principal forgiveness loans that are intended to remove barriers to investing in essential water infrastructure in underserved communities across rural America and in urban centers. The states are just now being notified of the 2022 allocations which is the first of five years of $43 billion EPA funding that states will receive through the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.” Jackson’s mayor has claimed that it will cost $1 billion to repair the Jackson water system.

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