Mississippi Crisis Highlights Climate Threat to Drinking Water Nationwide
Flash floods, wildfires and hurricanes are easy to recognize as ravages of a fast-changing climate. But now, climate change has also emerged as a growing threat to clean, safe drinking water across the country.
The deluge that knocked out a fraying water plant in Jackson, Miss., this week, depriving more than 150,000 people of drinking water, offered the latest example of how quickly America’s aging treatment plants and decades-old pipes can crumple under the shocks of a warming world.
“There’s a crisis at hand,” said Mikhail V. Chester, a professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering at Arizona State University. “The climate is simply changing too fast, relative to how quickly we could change our infrastructure.”
Earlier this summer, more than 25,000 people lost their water, some for weeks, after deadly floods ripped through eastern Kentucky, breaking water lines as they obliterated entire neighborhoods.
Utility companies across Texas spent the summer coping with hundreds of water-main breaks as record heat baked and shifted the drought-stricken soil surrounding pipes. This came after a bitter winter storm that plunged Texas into freezing darkness in February 2021 and caused thousands of pipes to burst.
And from the Gulf Coast to the East Coast, supercharged hurricanes like Harvey and Ida now regularly debilitate water suppliers, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to boil their water or scramble for bottles days or weeks after the storms pass.
This is on top of the slower-moving threats such as rising sea levels that can contaminate water supplies with saltwater, or a Western “mega-drought” that is withering reservoirs and parching the Colorado River that supplies water to some 40 million people.
President Biden made Jackson’s chronic water problems a centerpiece argument for the sprawling infrastructure bill he signed into law last fall. Money has only recently begun flowing to states and cities from that law, though, and Jackson’s share has been nowhere near the $1 billion or more that city officials say is necessary to replace their system.
The infrastructure law pledged some $50 billion for climate resilience — a lifeline for communities whose water systems were threatened by climate shocks. The money amounts to a political wager by Democrats that government spending can address decades of underinvestment and neglect that has fallen disproportionately on poor, minority-populated places like Jackson.
But the new law also reveals what experts describe as a weakness in how the federal government allocates such money. To be considered for grants, a city must be able to pay for specialized staff members who can assemble a competitive application. This poses a challenge for many smaller, poorer cities, which are often further at the mercy of state officials who decide which applications are sent up the chain.
In the past two years, Jackson has not applied for either of two federal climate-resilience programs that got big boosts in the infrastructure bill, according to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It was not clear whether Jackson had decided not to apply, or had sought to apply but was blocked by state officials. A spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, which determines which applications get submitted for some federal grants, would not say whether Jackson had sought to apply for those grants, saying it required a formal public records request.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said on Wednesday that the State of Mississippi received $75 million to upgrade drinking water systems across the state, with an additional $429 million coming available over the next five years. But that money is in the hands of the state Legislature, not Jackson officials. The city has used more than $20 million from Mr. Biden’s 2021 economic aid bill, the American Rescue Plan, to deal with water and sewer needs, she said. She also said there was nearly $31 million available for the city to improve its water system through revolving loan funds of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Mr. Biden called Jackson’s mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, on Wednesday to discuss the situation. A White House press aide told reporters that Mr. Biden “expressed his determination to provide federal support to address the immediate crisis and the longer term effort to rebuild Jackson’s water infrastructure.”
In Jackson, a majority Black city, water troubles have been exacerbated by decades of underinvestment, mismanagement and an exodus of residents to the suburbs, which leads to less money flowing to utilities.
“I’m taking my kids to friends’ and family members’ houses to bathe them,” said Brittany Smith, a waitress who said her water was brown when she went to shower this week. “I’m not keen to washing my dishes in it, either.”
The fragility of the city’s water system has been a problem in Jackson for decades. But the recent flood introduced a complication the city had never wrestled with before, as pumps were overwhelmed by the surge of water.
“As long as I’ve been in Jackson, that’s never happened before,” said Brian C. Grizzell, a city councilman.
“Our flood controls, our systems that are in place, are extremely antiquated,” Mr. Grizzell said. “We build more subdivisions, we build more businesses, and each time we build, that changes the landscape and it changes how water flows to where it’s supposed to.” Flood controls, he said, have not had the necessary upgrades to account for that.
Some experts said that billions more dollars were needed to overhaul 147,000 public-water supply systems across the country that were not designed to handle today’s extreme weather. Some cities have contemplated costly steps such as building desalination plants, or injecting treated wastewater into aquifers to keep seawater out.
“We don’t have enough money coming into our water systems to fundamentally change them,” said Allison Lassiter, an assistant professor in city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. “The infrastructure act just scratches the surface of what’s needed.”
Even in cities with the tax base needed to do that work, local officials are sometimes reluctant to raise enough revenue to fund it.
“The infrastructure to deliver that water is largely hidden,” said Ashlynn S. Stillwell, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Utilities have an idea how bad it is, but they might not have the large capital funds to do something about it.”
In cities like Jackson, those problems are further compounded by demographic and economic changes. A shrinking population means the costs of maintenance are spread across fewer ratepayers, increasing the pressure on officials to delay upgrades. And those residents who remain may have lower incomes, making it even harder to raise rates, Dr. Stillwell said.
Then, on top of all that, comes climate change, bringing more intense storms — weather catastrophes on a scale that drinking water infrastructure, along with every other part of a city’s infrastructure, was never designed to cope with, even if those water systems had been properly maintained.
In eastern Kentucky, 5,000 customers are still being asked to boil their water a month after flash floods tore through their towns. While water connections have been almost fully restored, about 80 customers still do not have water turned back on.
One of those houses in the community of River Caney belongs to Justina Salyers’s parents, whose living room and kitchen were gutted when floodwaters swamped their first floor. Her parents and their neighbors are using 275-gallon portable tanks to store water, and some are even trying to revive moldering old wells that have sat untouched for decades.
“They can’t flush the toilets. They can’t bathe. They’re working in dirt and mud, and they have no water,” Ms. Salyers said.
In the 90-person city of Buckhorn, Ky., Mayor Thomas Burns Jr. is among the residents still under a boil-water advisory, but he said people are just glad to have the taps back on. He said the floods did an estimated $1 million in damage to the water systems — far more than Buckhorn could shoulder without state or federal help.
“We’ve ignored our infrastructure,” he said. “It’s scary. We take this thing about fresh water for granted.”
Danny Barrett Jr. contributed reporting.