‘I’m open to all options’: Gov. says he’s open to privatizing Jackson’s water system

Gov. Tate Reeves and Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba answers questions at a press conference Thursday.
Gov. Tate Reeves and Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba answers questions at a press conference Thursday.(WLBT)
Published: Sep. 5, 2022 at 10:58 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Gov. Tate Reeves is touting the state’s efforts to restore water to the Jackson, a week after equipment failures crippled operations at the city’s main water treatment facility.

At the same time, he is taking the city to task for failing to maintain the facility and calling on the state to take action, saying he is even open to seeing the city’s system privatized.

“I’m open to all options. Privatization is on the table,” he said. “Having a commission that oversees failed water systems as they have in many states is on the table... There have been even a number of city council members that I have seen over the last several weeks that have talked a lot about the need to hire outside contractors to come in and run different pieces of or the system as a whole.”

“I think you’re seeing more and more individuals recognize that the operations of city government in general, but particularly the operations of the water system... it ain’t Republican or Democrat or ideological, it’s about delivering a basic service to the people you represent,” he said.

Reeves spoke Monday, seven days after the state stepped in to help make repairs at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment facility and days after he mobilized the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and Mississippi National Guard to distribute potable and non-potable water to residents.

He was joined by leaders from MEMA, the Mississippi State Department of Health, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“One week ago today, I stood on this podium and I told you that the state was going to take historic, unprecedented steps to intervene in Jackson’s water system because it had reached a crisis level,” he said. " Not only were there issues with the quality of the water, [but also] there were issues with the quantity of water. The city could not produce enough running water for Jacksonians. Today... I’m very happy to report that we have returned water pressure to the city. Tanks are full or filling. There are currently zero water tanks at low levels.”

“Chastain is the pump closest to the O.B. Curtis pant and is often called a bellwether for the system. The health department told me this morning, that is full for the first time in months.”

Jim Craig, director of the Office of Health Protection with the Mississippi State Department of Health, told the press that pressure at the Curtis plant reached 90 PSI, or pounds per square inch, over the weekend, but that pressure had dipped to around 85 PSI Monday morning.

“We will see some fluctuations at the plant, but they should not be felt throughout the system now that the margin is in place,” he said.

O.B. Curtis treats water through both conventional and membrane filtration processes. On the conventional side, water is brought into the plant and allowed to settle in large basins before being treated and pushed into the distribution system. On the membrane side, water is pumped in and then pushed through membrane filters before being treated and sent to customers.

As of September 4, the plant was producing 18.7 million gallons on the conventional side and 8.42 million gallons on the membrane side, according to an incident command brief found on MEMA’s website.

“The O.B. Curtis plant today is not functioning at peak capacity. Approximately 27 million gallons of water [was] produced at O.B. Curtis yesterday. That is a facility that, if operating properly, could produce 57 million gallons a day,” Reeves said.

The city’s J.H. Fewell Plant, meanwhile, produced 19.69 gallons of water, just shy of the plant’s 20-million-gallon capacity.

Numerous people have been deployed to the plant, including 8 MEMA workers, 7 MSDH staffers, 8 Jackson workers not including regular O.B. Curtis personnel, 1 EPA official, 3 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers workers, 1 FEMA worker, and 2 Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality staffers.

“We still have water pressures, as Jim [Craig] mentioned, at levels better than any in a long, long time. And so that just goes to show you that with adequate staffing and competent staffing, these fixes can be made to keep the water system pumping,” Reeves said.

He blamed failures at the plant, in large part, on a lack of staffing. In August, WLBT reported that the Curtis plant had just two Class A-certified operators, as required under state and federal statutes. Emails obtained by WLBT showed that in November if the city lost any more staffing, it would be forced to shut down one of the plants.

“The immediate crisis for which the state has come in and taken over O.B. Curtis is a direct result of the lack of operators, the lack of staff, and the lack of mechanics and the lack of people,” he said. “Basic work to maintain the facilities was not done because the few heroic staff in that plant had been abandoned.”

Reeves blamed the city’s water woes on other issues as well, including a lack of investment and a lack of collections on its billing system. Jackson has been struggling to collect water bills for years, in large part, due to complications with the Siemens contract. The city is now replacing the meters that were put in place as part of that deal.

Going forward, Reeves said it’s now time to develop a plan to deal with Jackson’s water in the short and long-term.

“I personally believe that we cannot depend upon the city of Jackson to provide that. And therefore, we are going to work with our state and federal partners and with input from the city to develop both intermediate and long-term plans,” he said. “Obviously, as we move into the intermediate and long-term planning, there’s got to be a serious conversation, and the state legislature will be involved and engaged in that.”

Several discussions are already going on at the state and city levels regarding the future of Jackson’s water. Recently, the city council passed a resolution urging the mayor to bring on a third-party firm to manage the plant.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said at the time that he was not opposed to bringing on a third-party, but did not support privatizing the system.

Documents obtained by WLBT show that at least at one point the administration had looked at a proposal from Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Water Capital Partners LLC, which would have created a “public-private partnership to upgrade Jackson’s water infrastructure.”

That proposal would have included paying Jackson millions of dollars upfront and called on making “immediate capital improvements to treatment plants to address water quality, environmental compliance, and other issues... [and] ongoing investments every year to fund capital needs for the term of the contract,” according to a copy of the document.

KKR proposal would create a "public-private" partnership to govern Jackson's water system.
KKR proposal would create a "public-private" partnership to govern Jackson's water system.(WLBT)

Customer rates, in turn, would be determined by the amount of investment. A $250 million investment, for instance, would come with an average annual increase of 3.5 percent to customers’ water/sewer bills, the proposal shows.

KKR proposal would create a "public-private" partnership to govern Jackson's water system.
KKR proposal would create a "public-private" partnership to govern Jackson's water system.(WLBT)

Other ideas being floated include creating a “regional water authority” or having a “court-appointed receiver assume operations of the city’s water/sewer system,” according to a September 1 letter from Rep. Shanda Yates.

Whether a regional authority could be created remains to be seen. The city of Byram is hoping to come off of Jackson water and the West Rankin Utility Authority recently moved off of Jackson’s wastewater system last year. Meanwhile, the cities of Clinton, Bolton, and Raymond have been given legislative authority to create their own wastewater authority to send wastewater to the Big Black River.

That’s likely because other municipalities don’t want to take on Jackson’s water/sewer issues. Clinton Mayor Phil Fisher said with an authority, money paid by residents in his city would go toward fixing Jackson’s water system.

“I heard a report from Mayor Lumumba saying they needed $200 million,” he said. “They would come to Clinton and say, ‘OK, your portion that $200 million is this to get that portion of the system right that you want to use.’” Fisher said he’s never been in talks with joining an authority with Jackson and said it’s an idea that his city has never considered.

Regardless of what action is taken, many agree that something should be done, and sooner than later. “Each option comes with its own set of advantages and challenges, which much be addressed accordingly,” Yates wrote. “However, what is abundantly clear is that we, as a state, must act now and we must be forward-thinking in our actions.”

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