Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

Like seemingly every other facet of American society these days, when it comes to both the national media and the state’s press, the assignment of blame for the City of Jackson’s water and sewer system woes falls into two distinct camps.

The first camp blames those woes almost entirely on what they perceive as pervasive, endemic poverty and racism in Mississippi, particularly in Jackson, Mississippi’s capital city. The second camp blames those problems on the supposed ineptitude and fiscal sloth of Jackson’s black majority city government.

Both camps can forcefully argue their contentions and both arguments contain undeniable elements. But taken at face value, both arguments alone are erroneous and simplistic.

Both camps also leave a lot of relevant information unpacked in those simple and often intensely partisan arguments – not the least of which is aging water and wastewater infrastructure in which both the pipes and the treatment plants are seriously past their design limits.

There’s the impact of Yazoo clay on breaks in the pipes that reduce water pressure, release raw sewage, and allow stormwater to infiltrate what are supposed to be closed systems.

There’s the constant threat of Pearl River flooding. In 1979, more than 6,000 people in 1,935 homes and 775 businesses in the metro Jackson area alone learned to fear the “big one” — the 200-year Pearl River “Easter Flood” that devastated the city and inflicted over $400 million in damage.

Multiple flood control projects – upstream dams (wet or “dry”), two lakes, one lake, single or multiple weirs designs, dredging projects and widening projects have come and gone due to political disagreements, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers objections, the influence of developers and environmentalists, and that of other interests.

Upstream and downstream critics of flood-control projects to alleviate Pearl River basin flooding claim the only group that doesn’t remember the ravages of the 1979 flood are commercial and residential real estate developers who continue to build in the Pearl River basin flood plain.

Then there are the political influences. When majority-white governments controlled the City of Jackson, they by and large did a better job of operational functions of the city’s water and sewer systems than have recent majority black city governments – that is to say that billing functions were more consistent.

But those majority-white city government leaders kicked the fee and taxation can down the road on broader system maintenance and the portion of the city’s water and sewer system in black neighborhoods was given far less attention than those in more affluent white neighborhoods. By the time the city transitioned through “white flight” from Jackson to new developments in Rankin and Madison counties to a true black majority city government, those new black city leaders were handed the keys to a water and sewer system that needed significant, pervasive and cost-prohibitive repair and replacement.

Of those Jackson city leaders in the black-majority city government era, the most focused and productive was three-term Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. – the city’s first African American chief executive. Johnson, who led Jackson to expend or obligate almost $150 million in water and sewer projects in the period between 1997 and 2013 in efforts to forestall the current Jackson water crisis is chronicled in the Online Journal of Rural & Urban Research at Jackson State University Spring 2022 special issue entitled “Implications of the 2021 Jackson Water Crisis: Past, Present, and Future.”

Johnson has been quoted in the media citing those expenditures at closer to $200 million.

The journal article, written with Johnson’s participation, identified the following challenges that Jackson faced during his tenure: “The historic disparity in the provision of municipal services to local residents; A decreasing population and dwindling tax base; An increasing rate of poverty among the water system user base; and Adverse intergovernmental policies that placed the burden of financing improvements on local government and ratepayers.”

State officials point to lax efforts by the current Jackson city government to collect water bills and point to the fact that other Mississippi cities supported and maintain their water systems through local fee systems and bonds. They say legislative support for a bailout for Jackson remains tepid and that’s clearly accurate even while there are portable toilets on Capitol grounds.

Jackson’s water problems are complex – and the eventual solution will require complexity as well.