By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) – Jackson, Mississippi, will go without reliable drinking water indefinitely, officials said on Monday, after pumps at the main water treatment plant failed, leading to the emergency distribution of bottled water and tanker trucks for 180,000 people.
The city linked the failure to complications from the flooding of the Pearl River, but Governor Tate Reeves, who declared a state of emergency, said the cause was unknown and that the city-run water treatment plant had been poorly operated and understaffed for years.
In any case the capital city of 150,000 people and 30,000 in surrounding communities could go without running water indefinitely, as officials warned anyone with access to tap water should boil it for three minutes.
Jackson, the state capital, is more than 80% Black or African American, according to U.S. Census data.
“Do not drink the water,” Reeves told a hastily called news conference. “In too many cases, it is raw water from the reservoir being pushed through the pipes.”
The city said recent flooding of the Pearl River created complications at the O.B. Curtis water treatment plant, which sits next to a reservoir that drains into the river just north of town.
The town has been under a boiled water alert for a month.
Reeves said the motors powering the plant’s pumps went out recently, leaving it to operate on backup pumps, which failed on Monday. The state would establish an incident command center at the plant early Tuesday, hoping to re-establish operations.
“Until it is if fixed, it means we do not have reliable running water at scale. It means the city cannot produce enough water to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets, and to meet other critical needs,” Reeves said.
The crisis exposed a gulf between the Republican governor and the Democratic mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Antar Lumumba.
Reeves said he did not invite Lumumba to Monday’s news conference and said, “I can’t comment on what effect the flooding may or may not have had.”
The city operates the area’s two water treatment plants, the O.B. Curtis plant, which treats 50 million gallons (227,300 cubic meters) per day, and the Fewell plant, whose normal production of 20 million was increased to 30 million gallons, officials said.
Because water pressure dropped system-wide, officials could not guarantee running water, and they did not know how many homes were affected.
In the meantime, Jackson Public Schools said they would shift to online learning starting Tuesday.
The city and state were both distributing bottled drinking water and non-potable water for toilets, which the governor called a “massively complicated logistical task.”
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bradley Perrett and Stephen Coates)