After 40 days without clean drinking water, the boil-water advisory in Jackson, Mississippi, was lifted yesterday. Around 150,000 residents in the city had been under a boil water advisory since July, and severe flooding in August only worsened the water system’s problems.
Conditions are so bad that Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R), who agree on little else, agree that Jackson needs a new water operator. Gov. Reeves raised the possibility of water privatization at a recent press conference:
“I’m open to all options. Privatization is on the table,” Reeves said.
“Having a commission that oversees failed water systems as they have in many states is on the table… There have been even a number of city council members that I have seen over the last several weeks that have talked a lot about the need to hire outside contractors to come in and run different pieces of or the system as a whole.”
“I think you’re seeing more and more individuals recognize that the operations of city government in general, but particularly the operations of the water system… it ain’t Republican or Democrat or ideological, it’s about delivering a basic service to the people you represent,” he said.
Reeves and the state government will play a role in helping Jackson overcome its water problems. Still, the financial and productive capital required for such a large undertaking will likely need to come from the private sector. Long-term, Jackson’s water, sewer, and stormwater system need an estimated $2 billion to get them working again and back in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Jackson’s shaky finances and the dire shape of its water and sewer operations mean merely outsourcing maintenance, as Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba suggested as an alternative to privatization, would not solve the long-term water system replacement concerns, attract the needed capital investments to repair and rebuild, or truly address the city’s more extensive environmental compliance and staffing concerns.
While outsourcing would certainly help some of the day-to-day operations issues, Jackson would still be mostly on its own for getting itself back into compliance and finding the $2 billion needed for system repairs and upgrades.
Jackson’s previous bad contracting experience with its water system should not prevent the city from seeking a long-term deal now. A few years into a 2013 water contract with Siemens to repair sewer infrastructure and upgrade billing and meter systems, Jackson filed a complaint in court against the company, claiming it was misled into the 15-year $90 million contract with promises of increased revenues that never materialized and work that was never done. Before going to trial, the parties agreed to a settlement equal to the original contract’s total amount, $90 million, paid to the city.
In the future, a well-written, long-term privatization contract can set clear benchmarks for the private company to meet and instill financial penalties for failing to do so. Any privatization contract should protect Jackson’s taxpayers, make it easy to hold the private water company accountable for meeting its commitments and avoid some of the problems from the Siemens deal.
Six weeks without drinking water has drawn public attention to the government’s failures in Jackson and decades of failing to comply with EPA standards. For example, drinking water quality is partly ensured by monitoring the turbidity—cloudiness from impurities—of water samples taken from the system. A 2020 EPA inspection found that the turbidity monitoring equipment at one of Jackson’s two water treatment plants didn’t work because it hadn’t been calibrated in around three years, resulting in continuously inaccurate readings. And, in an example of how hard it will be for the city to fix all of its water problems itself: The technician position needed to perform water turbidity maintenance and monitoring is not filled right now. In fact, the job no longer exists in the city government at all.
Additionally, the EPA found that when Jackson’s lead levels rose above acceptable limits, the city didn’t notify residents. The EPA report also noted that Jackson did not have a plan to remove lead service lines from its water system—something the city has been required to do but has been failing since 1992.
Among other problems, the EPA report also discovered that filter membranes in water treatment facilities were not functioning and were damaged beyond repair, automated treatment systems were failing, and low staffing levels were a constant problem.
Jackson’s water problems are severe, and solving them won’t be inexpensive. Still, the right long-term partnership could help the city overcome its obstacles as cost-effectively as possible. Hiring capable partners legally bound to perform well would put Jackson on a path to bring its system into compliance and start reducing its backlog of maintenance and repairs.
Without a privatization deal, Jackson’s water system will likely worsen. Procuring a multi-decade lease will undoubtedly be challenging, but without one, there is no path to address Jackson’s many water and sewer management problems fully.