Jackson Water System Has Problems Privatization Won’t Solve


The most recent report of boiling water for Jackson, Miss., was lifted late last week. But the heavier lifting has only just begun.

In late August, a series of storms caused the Pearl River to swell, flooding the OB Curtis Water Plant, which treats most of Jackson’s drinking water. The aging, understaffed plant could not handle the influx of water and reduced the amount of clean water being distributed. That led to a lower pressure in the system, and ultimately a loss of usable water around the city. The flood didn’t even been just as bad as officials feared in the days before the storms. But it exposed a slow-growing disaster in Mississippi’s capital.

Jackson already had some cooking advice when the flood started. It was the second time in two years that a storm had left the city’s residents without potable water weeks in a row. The city — 160,000 residents, 82.5 percent black, a quarter living below the poverty line — had lost its tax base for years and struggled to pay for critical maintenance and infrastructure upgrades. There was occasional open conflict between Jackson mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a black Democrat, and Mississippi governor Tate Reeves, a white Republican. In the days after the most recent crisis began, state leaders seemed to suggest that the long-term management of Jackson’s water system should not be left to local leaders.

One of the options leaders discussed is to sell or lease the water system to a private company — a utility management trend that has ebbed and flowed over the years. “Privatization is on the table”, Reeves said at a press conference on Sept. But is that a likely outcome? And how will this affect the residents?

Recovery plan is a “moving target”

Local and state leaders alike have acknowledged that Jackson’s water system needs capital investment on the order of $1 billion or more. But figuring out the full scope of what needs to be solved is “a bit of a moving target,” Lumumba . told me reigning in an interview last week. The mayor has reversed suggestions that the city has no plan for the system by releasing various plans to the mediaincluding a capital improvement plan which he says cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in commission.

According to Lumumba, the city is currently getting help from several parties — including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and professional mutual aid networks — to put together a list of necessary solutions. Lumumba says he recently requested a dashboard of measures needed to strengthen the system, from “stop-over” to long-term capital improvements.

Jackson currently owns his water system and Lumumba notes residents have voted to raise their own taxes to pay for infrastructure upgrades in the past. The city tried again after the last major crisis in 2021, but was hindered by state legislators. The request for $46 million in state funds to make improvements was also: refused last year.

“Our residents are not afraid of shared sacrifice,” says Lumumba. “They just want solutions that make sense to them.”

Shrinking investments, diverging effects

In the past, the federal government paid a much larger share of the costs of maintaining the water infrastructure. But it’s been shrinking for nearly half a century, says Mami Hara, CEO of the US Water Alliance, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC. Addressing the backlog of critical repairs to the national water infrastructure will require “growing and ongoing investment” from the federal government, Hara said in an email. The US Water Alliance and the American Society of Civil Engineers have: estimated an average annual gap of $81 billion between what is spent on water infrastructure and what is needed. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed last year by President Joe Biden provides some of the largest investments in water infrastructure in generations, but still well below estimated need — about $55 billion over five years, Hara said. .

The need for water infrastructure is a national problem. But they’re especially acute in poor cities like Jackson, and tend to have greater impacts — in terms of water quality, reliability and affordability — in black communities and other communities of color.

“These differences often stem from unequal investment in water infrastructure,” Hara says. “Drinking water systems that serve resource-poor communities tend to have less revenue and less access to capital to fund projects. Infrastructure deteriorates without investment in maintenance, which reduces water quality and threatens public health.”

What would a private company do?

Private companies tend to charge residents more for water. In a recent study of 500 water systems, researchers from Cornell University and the University of Pittsburgh found it that privatization was specifically associated with higher bills and less affordability for local taxpayers. That’s partly because private companies make a profit on top of the cost of using the system, researchers say. One of the risks of privatization is that a company that pursues profits would not spend its maximum resources on the water system, said Marcela González Rivas, an associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, who co- author of the study.

“All systems require a lot of investment, and besides, if you put people in them who make a profit, it doesn’t align with affordable rates,” says González Rivas.

Lumumba says Jackson does need outside help and has tried to negotiate an operating and maintenance deal with a private company (which he wouldn’t name), but the negotiations were undermined by the state in talks with the same company. . The city is “well within its capacity to make it” [third-party] enter into agreements and retain ownership’ of the water system, says Lumumba. But the state may want to take control of the system, transfer it to a private company, or regionalize the water board to spread costs and revenues with surrounding municipalities. (Asked whether the governor is actively considering privatizing the system, a spokesperson said, “All options are on the table and we are considering their strengths and weaknesses.”)

“Privatization is the worst possible solution,” Lumumba says. “With the level of capital improvement that Jackson’s water facility needs, [a private company] should get a very, very large pound of meat from our residents to make the profit they want to make on the system. For a city where affordability is already a major challenge, it would essentially move our citizens from one state of misery to another.”

It might be a point of concern. According to Christopher Franklin, CEO of Essential Utilities, one of the largest water companies in the US, it is “not possible” for a private company to operate a system like Jackson’s that has so much deferred maintenance. Franklin, whose company is just getting off the ground a failed deal to acquire a major water company near Philadelphia recognizes that private water companies typically charge higher rates. But he says that what anti-privatization proponents call profit is really just the basic economics of running a solvent utility company. The economy is not there in Jackson.

“There is a limit to what private companies can do,” Franklin says. “The required capital volume, the magnitude of the required rate increases [to cover it] and then the ability to pay in Jackson, Miss., makes it very difficult to – forget profit – just talk about break even.”

Maintaining public control

Jackson won’t be able to afford the cost of upgrading his water system on his own. And it “is completely unfair for small communities and historically disadvantaged communities of all sizes to bear the burden of filling gaps and accrued system costs,” says Hara of the US Water Alliance. But even if all the capital investment were covered by the federal government and the work was completed quickly, Jackson would still struggle to afford the running costs of a modern water system without asking for more than residents can afford to pay.

“For cities that are poor or cities that are shrinking, you need a grant,” said Mildred Warner, a professor of urban planning at Cornell University who co-authored the study on privatization and affordability. “You just do it.”

In Jackson, ordinary people have helped each other bear the burden of life without clean running water. Groups like Collaboration Jackson receive support from around the country and help distribute bottled water to communities in need. For Kali Akuno, a co-founder of the group, the influx of support was both encouraging and discouraging.

“To me, it really shows that there are limits to solidarity in this particular form,” Akuno says. “Despite everything that’s coming in and still coming in, it doesn’t and can’t meet everyone’s needs. It’s just not designed for that.”

Although the most recent report of boiling water has been lifted, Akuno says residents expect water crises to be “a periodic aspect of our urban life.” However, that does not mean that they can be expected to relinquish control of their water system. He doesn’t expect a private company to actually take over the water board, but he says the state is using the threat as a political tool.

“The bottom line is that private companies want to make money, and there’s no money to be made in Jackson,” Akuno said. “The city is facing some major challenges, and I fear that if we don’t get to grips with this and get some resources soon, Jackson will continue to shrink at a very accelerated pace.”

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