The City of Jackson may receive federal assistance for its ongoing water crisis after U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith introduced a three-pronged relief bill on Tuesday. But the road between that bill’s introduction and the actual appropriation of funds to the city is long and ambiguous. Some observers, including former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. and Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, worry that the funds may not reach Jackson in time—or at all.
The bill arrived only one day before the City of Jackson lifted its precautionary boil-water notice for 43,000 surface water connections today, affirming access to clean drinking water for the majority of Jackson’s roughly 160,000 residents, who have been without safe water since Feb. 15, over a month ago.
“The weeks of hardship on Jackson residents is upsetting and completely unacceptable,” Hyde-Smith said in a statement accompanying the bill. “Jackson’s water woes became a crisis with the February ice storm, but the hard truth is that the crisis was just waiting to happen after decades of neglecting necessary repairs and maintenance. It’s time to put that neglect behind us and work toward fixing the problem.”
City leadership has repeatedly pushed back on the assertion that “neglect” is to blame for the state of the city’s collapsing water infrastructure. “There has never been a lack of a plan for the City of Jackson,” Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba told the Mississippi Free Press on March 9. “Our problem has been that we haven’t had the funding to follow through with the plan we’ve already drawn up.”
Hyde-Smith’s plan comes attached with blame that city leadership rejects, but it may promise some of the federal aid that they have requested to make the system whole. The senator, a Republican from Brookhaven, introduced the legislation in the U.S. Senate with the intent to divert funds to the State of Mississippi and the City of Jackson for water system repair through three key provisions.
‘$25 Million Sitting there Since 2007’
First, the bill would expand a 2007 authorization under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Section 219 Program from $25 million to $47 million. This would allow for a future appropriations bill to divert the full $47 million toward “the design and construction of environmental infrastructure projects.”
Critically, however, despite the original 2007 authorization of $25 million for the City of Jackson, no Section 219 funds have actually been diverted to help the city, leaving the actual dollar value of the authorization deeply in question.
Harvey Johnson Jr., who served as mayor of Jackson from 1997 until 2005, and then again from 2009 to 2013, told the Mississippi Free Press in a March 17 interview that Section 219 funds authorized for Jackson have yet to materialize into actual support.
“That $25 million has been sitting there since 2007. Whether $25 million or $47 million, it really doesn’t have any impact until it’s appropriated,” Johnson said.
The former mayor explained that a long-standing hold on new Corps of Engineers Section 219 projects was behind the holdup. “In 2007, Congress and Office of Management and Budget decided that appropriations bills that related to the Corps of Engineers would not go forward to the appropriations stage for projects that were new starts,” Johnson said.
A U.S. Government Accountability Office report from 2019 showed that, between 2013 and 2017, the only Section 219 projects actually receiving funding in Mississippi were construction in DeSoto County and Jackson County, for $9.3 million and $12 million, respectively. Those projects were authorized last century: DeSoto County in 1999 and Jackson County in 1992. Across the entire report, no project in the U.S. authorized since 2007 has received funding.
Jessica Dulaney, acting chief of public affairs for the corps’ Vicksburg district, declined to comment on the potential authorization of new Section 219 funds in Hyde-Smith’s bill.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not comment on pending litigation (sic),” Dulaney wrote in a statement to the Mississippi Free Press. As of press time, Dulaney had yet to respond to queries as to whether there is ongoing litigation over Section 219 spending, or if the statement included a misspelling of “legislation.”
Between the Section 219 appropriations freeze and the long gap between authorization and appropriation, it remains extremely unclear if and when the first $47 million in Hyde-Smith’s bill will reach Jackson.
A Subsidized Loan, For Whom?
Second, the bill would provide $150 million to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund. State Revolving Loan Funds have been an increasingly significant vector for federal support for municipal water and sewer improvements since the Water Quality Act of 1987.
The final two sections of the bill do not address Jackson by name. Rather, they designate “eligible states,” which have had five major disasters and public water systems seriously damaged in Winter Storms Uri and Viola; and “eligible systems,” which are those “subject to an emergency administrative order section 1431 of the Safe Drinking Water Act during calendar year 2020.”
Jackson qualifies under this metric: the non-specific language, which does not reference Jackson by name, may prevent the bill from being classified as an earmark.
Fifteen percent of the funds provided would be designated for “the purposes of purchasing and installing new water meters and modernizing billing systems,” a key concern for Jackson, which still struggles with water billing after the catastrophic Siemens contract failed to modernize the city’s meters and billing over the last decade.
Money from state revolving loan funds are just that—loans—they do not provide additional or ongoing support for a gap between revenue and expenses, the chasm that Jackson leadership has said prevents them from fully repairing and updating the system.
But the bill does include language that would designate “eligible systems” as “disadvantaged communities.” If Jackson were to receive this designation, the State of Mississippi could subsidize between 6% to 35% of the loan under a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Thus, if the bill passes, and Mississippi receives the full $150-million appropriation, and it makes the full amount available to the City of Jackson at the maximum possible subsidy, the result would be, effectively, a $97.5 million loan and a $52.5 million grant to the city. Of those funds, $22.5 million would be explicitly designated for use on the city’s water meters and billing system.
Johnson worries that the $52.5 million would be contingent on a major loan from the state. “There still has to be a mechanism for paying the loan back,” he said. Moreover, the qualifying language may affect other water systems in the South harmed by February’s winter storms.
“I’m willing to bet that there are other systems that could be affected, maybe even in Mississippi,” Johnson added. “I’m not certain that this language pertains only to the city of Jackson. It may not pertain only to the State of Mississippi.”
After Bill Drops, Questions Remain
The final section of the bill “directs the Secretary of Commerce to direct not less than $25 million in EDA Economic Adjustment Assistance, or EAA, grant funds to ‘eligible systems.’” While this section also targets non-specific water systems like the previous provision, it is otherwise a relatively simple appropriation of CARES Act and fiscal-year 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act money “to address contaminants in drinking water.”
While contaminants in drinking water are a dangerous potential side effect of aging transmission lines and failing water-treatment plants, the origins of the Jackson water crisis lay in a lack of winterization upgrades to the treatment plants that provide the city with the majority of its clean water.
Still, there is no doubt that the city could make use of $25 million in federal funds to improve its beleaguered transmission system, parts of which are over 100 years old.
Johnson saw much to celebrate in Hyde-Smith’s bill as well, and hoped clarification would reveal the maximum possible benefit for the City of Jackson’s water woes. “If it does, it’s great. It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. But, he finished, “there’s a little ambiguity in the legislation.”
Rep. Chris Bell shared another concern with the Mississippi Free Press, fretting that the perception of incoming federal support could dissuade statewide leadership from their pursuit of legislative support for Jackson’s water system: surrendering an immediate dedication of funds at the state level for a hypothetical investment coming from the federal government.
“If (that happens),” Bell said, “we’re still in the same boat.”
By press time, Rep. Bennie Thompson, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith did not respond to requests for interviews from the Mississippi Free Press.