By Nicole Batey and Alexis Taylor

Brown water coming out of a kitchen faucet in Jackson, Miss. is not new.

Neither is boiling water in order to drink it.

One resident- Cassandra Welchlin, executive director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, told the AFRO that residents have become normalized to discolored water because multiple a few times a year the water comes out of the faucet brown. 

“I’ve lived in Jackson my entire life,” said Welchlin. “I remember in the late 70s and 80s when there was a winter storm, my granny and my mom would fill up the tub with water and boil it on the stove. We would take sponge baths with it.”

“I’m repeating that now with my own family,” she said.

More than 160,000 residents of Jackson, Miss. have been affected by a deteriorating water system and decaying infrastructure for decades. Recent flooding only exacerbated trouble at Jackson’s O.B. Curtis water treatment plant and its neighboring J.H. Fewell treatment facility, leaving many without safe, drinkable water as of late.

On July 29, the Mississippi Department of Health issued a boil water notice, saying that “there is an increased chance that the water may contain disease-causing organisms.” Heavy flooding then took the water treatment plants completely offline in August.

President Biden declared, “that an emergency exists in the State of Mississippi and ordered Federal assistance to supplement the state’s response efforts due to the emergency conditions resulting from a water crisis beginning on August 30, 2022, and continuing.”

Welchlin thought she would only be dealing with back-to-school jitters at the start of another school year. Instead, she found herself paying for school supplies, clothes and cases of water.

Baltimoreans watched as Mississippi residents filed into water distribution centers not knowing that their city would be the scene of the next water crisis. On Sept. 5 the Department of Public Works told Baltimore residents that E. coli was detected during routine water testing. By Sept. 6 three water distribution centers were operating in the city. Shown here, DPW Supervisor E. Maple joins workers on the ground as they pass out bottles of clean water. Read below for more on the Jackson water crisis, and see D1 for more coverage of the water issues facing Baltimore residents. Photograph courtesy of James Fields.

“We’ve told our children don’t drink the water- don’t even wash their hands with the water. We use bottled water for them to brush their teeth and wash their hands,” she said. “We still have to use the water to take a bath, however, we’ve been telling them not to get the water on your face or in your mouth.”

This is the second time in two years that residents in Mississippi have had to deal with unsafe water coming from the faucet.

Last year residents were in a similar situation with the water when a winter storm impacted the treatment plants. 

“In 2021 when the winter storm hit Texas it hit Jackson, Miss. just as hard,” reported Welchlin. “Because our infrastructure is so old, whenever there is a winter storm it impacts our system and we either lose water, lose pressure or can’t drink the water at all.” 

“In 2021 during the spring our kids were out of school for a month. It’s a crumbling infrastructure that was built in the 50s when integration and White flight happened. The tax base eroded, and the state has not done the economic development work it should.” 

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), our nation’s drinking water infrastructure system received a C-. Made up of 2.2 million miles of underground pipes, the system is aging and underfunded. 

“Funding for drinking water infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing need to address aging infrastructure systems, and current funding sources do not meet the total needs. In general, however, state and local governments have invested more than their federal counterparts,” according to a report from the Infrastructure Report Card from ASCE. “Despite the growing need for drinking water infrastructure, the federal government’s share of capital spending in the water sector fell from 63 percent in 1977 to 9 percent of total capital spending in 2017. On average, about two-thirds of public spending for capital investment in water infrastructure since the 1980s has been made by state and local governments.” 

While millions of people are drinking safe, reliable water, several predominantly Black cities continue to struggle with poor drinking water systems. Remember the Flint, Mich. water crisis?

Photograph courtesy of James Fields.

As of July 2021, just over 10,000 pipes in Flint have been replaced. According to the National Resources Defense Council, the replacement of all pipes is expected to be completed in September 2022.

 NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson, a Jackson native said “This crisis is the direct result of the failures of politicians who have put party and politics over the issues that will help people in communities like Jackson, Miss., Flint, Mich., and the many other majority Black cities that have been left behind for too long. We need elected officials who will put people over politics and will address issues that impact communities of color. With only two months to go until the November election, officials looking to win our votes must show they are with us, and they will fight for us.”

Just as water pressure began to return to the homes and businesses of Jackson residents, Baltimoreans were told they too needed to boil their water. 

Positive E.coli tests caused a large swath of West Baltimore City to come under a boil water advisory beginning on Sept. 5. By the next day, the same water distribution lines Baltimoreans had been watching on the news were forming at three different locations in Charm City. 

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott updated residents on Sept. 7, decreasing the size of the area impacted by the advisory. 

In a statement to the press, the Office of the Mayor said that the advisory was lifted for “the area south and southwest of Route 40, including the original precautionary area in Baltimore County.” 

Baltimore officials noted that “the Required Boil Water Advisory remains in effect for the following boundaries:

West Baltimore: North and South Riggs Avenue to West Franklin Street and East and West Carey Street to Pulaski Avenue.