Approximately 90 percent of Americans receive their water from public drinking water systems; however, the country’s water systems are aging and failing, showing the consequence of long-term underinvestment. Tragically, long-overdue attention is often prompted by a catastrophe. Such was the case in Flint, Michigan and such is the case recently in Jackson, Mississippi. Many other U.S. public water systems are in danger of facing similar calamities, and climate change is exacerbating an already precarious situation.

For decades, Jackson has grappled with water issues, both in access and quality, and has often garnered the EPA’s scrutiny, receiving an emergency order in March 2020 and notices of noncompliance related to a myriad of issues in May 2020 and again in April of 2021.[1] The recent system failure of the O.B. Curtis Treatment Plant, the primary water treatment plant for Jackson, was a collision of multiple factors: lack of qualified personnel, years of infrastructure neglect, and flooding at the nearby Ross Barnett Reservoir. The flood waters overwhelmed the already-compromised system; the main pumps had already been out of operation for approximately one month. The waters entering the reservoir not only contaminated the supply but also caused the failure of the backup pumps. As a result, 180,000 residents in and around the city were without water, this after being under a boil notice since the end of July.

Revenue is a primary cause of Jackson’s issues. The city has experienced decreasing population figures beginning with the introduction of desegregation, “white flight,” and the tax base significantly contracted. Funds required to underwrite the appropriate maintenance and upgrades were not generated, and consequently the work was not done. Delayed attention has created more expensive issues: costs to repair Jackson’s system have been estimated from $200 million to in the billions. 

In response to Jackson’s water crisis, Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency and requested a federal emergency declaration which President Biden approved; these actions will provide disaster relief as well as funding toward a resolution. These actions along with funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will improve the city’s condition, although it is estimated to take years and more dollars than will likely be allocated to completely address the issues. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates $429 million to Mississippi to use for water lines and pipes, but that money is to be distributed throughout the state, not to Jackson alone.  

The EPA’s Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into the water crisis. Further, at the end of September the Department of Justice’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division sent a letter to Jackson officials notifying them that they are prepared to file an action against the city of Jackson under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The department urges “immediate negotiations” to eliminate the need for such action. [2]

[1] “Mississippi to Receive Nearly $75M in Infrastructure Funding.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 4 Dec. 2021,

[2] Kim, Todd, Assistant Attorney General. “US DOJ Letter.” Scribd, Scribd,