JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — The unreliable water system in Mississippi’s capital city causes problems several times a year at Styles of Essence barbershop, where water service can suddenly be cut off as workers repair pipes broken nearby.
Owner and stylist Belinda Smith keeps more than a dozen water jugs at the small South Jackson boutique, hidden under sinks and along the base of a wall painted with the slogan “Jesus Is Lord.” Even if the water stops flowing from the municipal network, she has to rinse her customers’ hair with chemicals.
“I came here and they’re going to turn off the water without letting me know,” Smith said Wednesday. “You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you haven’t filled your bottles.”
Jackson has longstanding and costly issues to address with its aging water system, and the EPA on Tuesday issued an advisory saying the system violates federal drinking water safety law. The order directs the city to set out a plan to “correct identified material deficiencies” in an EPA report within 45 days.
Like many older cities in the United States, Jackson faces more water system problems than it can afford to solve. The Mississippi capital’s tax base has eroded in recent decades as the population has shrunk — the result of the predominantly white flight to the suburbs that began after the integration of public schools in 1970. The city’s population is now over 80% black, with about 25% living in poverty.
After arctic weather blanketed parts of the South last February, equipment froze at a water treatment plant in Jackson. For weeks, tens of thousands of people were left without running water or dangerously low water pressure. The city ran distribution sites where people brought buckets to collect water for washing or flushing the toilet. The National Guard helped distribute crates of drinking water, and volunteers delivered bottled water to those without access to transportation.
When water pressure drops, it is possible for untreated groundwater to enter a water system through cracked pipes. Customers are therefore advised to boil water to kill potentially harmful bacteria. Jackson customers had to boil their water for a month after the 2021 problems.
The city is experiencing water problems again this week as temperatures dipped below freezing and caused membrane problems at a sewage treatment plant. Crews scrambled to fix newly broken pipes, and several schools in Jackson closed for in-person instruction because they had no water or low pressure.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Mississippi in mid-November as part of a five-day tour of low-income, mostly minority communities in the South. On the day he was in Jackson examining water issues, he visited an elementary school temporarily closed due to water issues. Even when classes were in session, students and teachers had to use portable toilets outside due to low water pressure.
In addition to water pressure, Jackson also had water quality issues for years. Due to concerns about lead levels, the city has long told people to avoid using hot tap water for drinking or cooking and to use only filtered or bottled water for preparations. for infants.
Sybil Smith lives in South Jackson, the part of town most likely to have water pressure issues because it’s far from sewage treatment plants. She said on Wednesday that she fears the city water will harm her and her family.
“I personally don’t drink it,” said Sybil Smith, a retired hospital worker who is not related to Belinda Smith at the hair salon.
Sybil Smith said she and her husband usually keep several cases of bottled water stocked in their home. During the cold spell last February, they had no running water for a few days and low pressure for many more.
Jackson will seek at least $42 million for short-term water system repairs as state lawmakers consider how to spend Mississippi’s share of federal pandemic relief money, said Justin Vicory, who works in communications for Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.
Lawmakers have not decided how much federal money to spend on statewide water and sewer systems, though an initial proposal is about $750 million. Jackson is led by Democrats and the legislature is led by Republicans. The legislature is also known for protecting rural interests, spreading money as widely as possible.
Associated Press reporter Matthew Daly contributed to this report from Washington.
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