The People’s Water Project calls for direct federal support and rejection of privatization as a dangerous distraction to resolving Jackson’s water crisis
The People’s Water Project, a coalition of groups and individuals working together to combat water inequities across the United States, stands in solidarity with the people of Jackson, Mississippi during the city’s water crisis caused by historic, racist disinvestment in local water infrastructure. We are calling on the federal government to provide direct financial and technical support to the city of Jackson to fully invest in the infrastructure and operations of the city’s water system while also urging local officials to reject the false solution that water privatization presents in this moment of crisis.
Jackson’s water crisis did not begin in August, it spans back years as residents dealt with lead and E. coli contamination in the water. As EPA Administrator Michael Regen recently acknowledged, Jackson has been without access to reliable, safe water for decades, with 300 boil water notices in just the past two years alone.
The racist roots of this crisis cannot be ignored. In response to continued efforts from the city to fund water system improvements beyond the limited funding from the state and federal government in recent years, the Mississippi state legislature — controlled overwhelmingly by white, conservative men — rejected these initiatives, created extra hoops for the city to jump through to access funding, and even blocked the city from increasing its own taxes to invest in infrastructure. Given the seemingly punitive approach the state has to working with Jackson, a city where 80% of residents are Black, it is critical for the federal government to provide direct support and oversight so that the city is no longer subject to the sole discretion of the institutions which contributed to this crisis.
Now, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves hopes to open the door to water privatizers to profit from the crisis in Jackson. This is disaster capitalism at work. The private water industry’s track record in communities across the country such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Bayonne, New Jersey shows that privatization too often leads to higher water rates, labor cuts, and other cost-cutting measures that endanger public health as companies maximize profits. It then comes as no surprise that privatization often increases inequality. In Pittsburgh, one of the most notable cases, lead levels in the water increased after the local water authority, under the management of Veolia, switched the corrosion control chemicals without required approval. Veolia, the largest private water corporation in the world, walked away with $11 million while Pittsburgh had to find the funding to replace the pipes leaching lead into the water.
A similar story played out in Jackson when the city contracted with Siemens in 2013 to upgrade its water metering and billing system with the assurance that the contract would pay for itself. According to the city, about a third of the water meters were installed incorrectly and the water meters were incompatible with the new billing system, leading to huge increases in bills for some residents and a lack of water bills for months for others. This left the city and its residents even worse off than before. While Siemens settled with the city for $90 million, the original cost of the contract, the city was left with the financial burden of repairing the water metering and billing system, covering debt from the $200 million bond the city used to finance the contract and the cost of lost revenue and tanking credit rating—which altogether the city estimated totaled $700 million in damages. And while some point to Jackson’s wastewater privatization as a model for the water system moving forward, the reality is much different. In the years since Veolia’s takeover of the wastewater system in 2017, there have been numerous massive sewage discharges into the local waterways. More recently, a local watchdog group has described the situation as “way worse than it’s ever been,” going on to state that “the last three months were worse than all of 2021.” It’s clear that further privatization in Jackson is not the answer.
We call on the federal government to provide direct investments to fully upgrade and repair Jackson’s water system. Mississippi will reportedly receive $429 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for water and wastewater infrastructure investments, with $75 million going to the state this year. However, according to estimates from Mayor Lumumba, the incoming federal dollars won’t be enough to fully upgrade Jackson’s aging water infrastructure system. As the EPA and DOJ negotiate with the city over Safe Drinking Water Act violations, the federal government must deliver direct, reparative investments in the city’s water infrastructure. With the necessary public funding and political will, the city’s water system will remain under public control and accountable to its residents to ensure safe, affordable, reliable drinking water.
The People’s Water Project Coalition