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‘Privatization Is On The Table’: Gov. Reeves Gives Jackson Water Crisis Update

photo of Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves in front of MS Emergency Management Agency sign
In a Labor Day update on the Jackson, Miss., water crisis, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said that while “the risk with respect to quantity of water has not been eliminated, it has been significantly reduced.” Screencap: Tate Reeves/Twitter

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves announced “significant” improvements in the Jackson water system on Labor Day while telling reporters he is open to numerous long-term solutions, including leasing its management to a private company.

One week ago today I stood on this podium and I told you the state was going to take historic and unprecedented steps to intervene in Jackson’s water system because it had reached a crisis level,” the governor said at a Monday morning press conference in the capital city. “Not only were there issues with the quality of the water, but with the quantity of the water. The city could not produce enough running water for Jacksonians.”

The Republican governor said health officials told him this morning that the beleaguered O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant is now “pumping out cleaner water than we’ve seen for a very, very long time.” He said he is hopeful that “we will be able to measure potential for clean water and the removal of the boil water notice” within “days, not weeks or months.”

“We know that it is always possible that there will be more severe challenges. This water system broke over several years and it would be inaccurate to claim it is totally solved in the matter of less than a week,” he said. “… There may be more bad days in the future. We have however reached a place where people in Jackson can trust that water will come out of the faucet, toilets can be flushed and fires can be put out.”

Despite his optimism, the governor cautioned that while “the risk with respect to quantity of water has not been eliminated, it has been significantly reduced.” Jackson currently remains under the boil water notice that began on July 29, 2022.

On Aug. 8, 2022, Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba said he would consider a “maintenance agreement” with a private company to help alleviate staffing shortages, but he has long said he opposes total-privatization of the water system. Photo by Nick Judin

Water distribution sites remain available in the City, he said, but school locations will no longer provide distribution tomorrow as Jackson Public School students return to classes. Schools went virtual last week due to the lack of water.

“As we turn to long-term problems in the future, I want to clarify a few things: There are indeed problems in Jackson that are decades old, on the order of $1 billion to fix,” Reeves said. “The crisis we intervened to solve is not one of those problems.”

When it comes to addressing the water system’s troubles beyond the immediate crisis, he said he is “open” to all ideas.

“Privatization is on the table,” the governor said. “Having a commission that oversees failed water systems as they have in many states is on the table. I’m open to ideas.”

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba has repeatedly said he opposes totally privatizing the water system by selling it to private company. But on Aug. 8, he said that he would consider a “maintenance agreement” with a private company for operations and management of the system to alleviate staffing shortages.

Reeves repeatedly criticized the City, citing its longtime water billing issues, staffing issues at the water plant and a failure to provide the State or the federal government with a plan to fix the water system.

“Unfortunately, we’ve never received a real plan from Jackson on how to improve their water system so the state could consider how to fund it. I know Congressman (Bennie) Thompson has said the federal government is in a similar situation,” Reeves said, referring to the Democrat who represents Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District, including most of the capital city. Lumumba said last week that he plans to form a committee to produce a plan.

A man in a suit and wearing glasses sits at a podium with his fingers entwined, behind a sign that says Mr Thompson, Chairman
“I resist with every fiber in my body for Jackson to be singled out just because it’s Jackson and being treated differently than all other communities and all water systems,” Rep. Bennie Thompson told Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast on Sept. 2, 2022. Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via AP, Pool

On Sept. 2, Thompson told Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast that unless the City of Jackson demonstrates an ability to properly manage the water system, he “would not be in favor of the City being given back the authority to run it.”

“Because it doesn’t make sense. … (W)e want a system that meets federal and state regulations. Now if we see that Jackson can’t do it, then obviously we have to look at an alternative,” he said. 

Still, Thompson noted that “years of neglect” contributed to Jackson’s problems.

“Jackson has been treated differently than other communities. So there has to be give and take on both sides. I encourage that,” he said. “But I resist with every fiber in my body for Jackson to be singled out just because it’s Jackson and being treated differently than all other communities and all water systems.”

During the Labor Day press conference, Reeves said he does not “see a need for a special session at this time,” but that “once there is a plan before us” for a long-term solution there will be a need for the Legislature to take action.”

“I think there is an overwhelming desire for the leadership, those who represent Jackson and those who do not, to take action,” he said.

See the Mississippi Free Press’ full Jackson water-crisis coverage, starting in March 2021.

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