As boil notice is lifted, Reeves says ‘chaos’ would have ensued without state intervening in water crisis

Most state-run drinking water distribution sites will operate through Saturday, MEMA says.
Jim Craig, with the Mississippi State Department of Health, left, leads Jackson Mayor Chokwe...
Jim Craig, with the Mississippi State Department of Health, left, leads Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, right, Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), center, and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, rear, as they walk past sedimentation basins at the City of Jackson's O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Facility in Ridgeland, Miss., Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, Pool)(Rogelio V. Solis | AP)
Published: Sep. 15, 2022 at 12:58 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson’s boil water notice has been lifted, but the city’s water system continues to be fragile, and state leaders are moving in a private team to help manage the capital city’s main water treatment plant as a result.

Gov. Tate Reeves announced that the state-imposed boil water notice placed on the city had been lifted at a press conference on Thursday.

The notice has been in place since July 29 and was imposed due to high levels of turbidity in water samples collected.

“As of today, we can state that the boil water advisory can be lifted for all those who rely on Jackson’s water system,” he said. “It is impossible, although I pray not inevitable, that there will be future interruptions.”

Reeves tempered the good news with the fact that Jackson’s water system remains fragile. “We cannot perfectly predict what may go wrong with such a broken system in the future,” he said. “We do know that the experts tell us that the state’s boil water notice can end today. Emergency orders will remain in effect and in full force until deemed appropriate to lift.”

He also said he was unsure when, or if, management of the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant would be turned back over to Jackson. The plant serves approximately 43,000 connections and is the epicenter of the current water crisis.

Meanwhile, health officials offered several tips to residents to flush potentially contaminated water from their home systems. Those include:

  • Discarding any drinks, ice, or food made during the boil water notice
  • Flushing faucets for three or four minutes throughout the house
  • Rewashing any food or drink contact items with clear system water
  • Checking and replacing water filters
  • And running your dishwasher a couple of times before washing dishes

“You just want to make sure that all of the clean water is in your home as you begin to use it again,” said Jim Craig, a senior deputy and director with the Mississippi Department of Health’s Office of Health Protection.

The city’s water crisis began on August 29, after equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant led to a loss of water or water pressure for tens of thousands of customers across the city and in Byram.

Reeves brought in the Mississippi State Department of Health, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and the Mississippi National Guard to help address problems at the plant and to help distribute potable and non-potable water.

Most state-run water distribution systems will remain in operation through 6:30 p.m., Saturday, September 17th, except for the site at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds, which will cease operations at 6:30 on Thursday.

“This allows all the logistics to move all of these trucks, all of the National Guard to reposition their equipment, to get their soldiers back home and [to allow them to] get on with their regular day jobs,” MEMA Executive Director Stephen McCraney said.

Through Thursday, MEMA and Guard had distributed 11.7 million bottles of water to customers, answered 755 calls for assistance, and took water to 417 homes.

“Equivalate all of that water to 362 semi tractor-truck trailers rolling down the highway at one time,” he said. “That’s what they were able to accomplish. And it was a feat within itself.”

MEMA now is expected to review quotes for a project manager to take over repairs at the Curtis facility. The agency began advertising for quotes earlier this week and expected to receive responses by noon on Thursday.

“We’ll be assessing that this afternoon and tomorrow, and very soon we will pick that vendor and we’ll get that in there,” McCraney said. “So, we’re looking at the medium and long-term look at that. That’s what the program manager is going to look at, everything we’ve done up to date, where we are... all [the] construction of things that we’ve done... and then look at what’s next,” he said.

“That’s something we’ve engaged with the Department of Health and others that are at the site on to make sure that we’ve got that in our pocket, and we’re ready to continue to make O.B. Curtis the actual water production site that it can be.”

Curtis, which is located in Ridgeland, treats water from the Barnett Reservoir. It is authorized by the state to treat up to 50 million gallons of water a day. However, even with repairs made by the state, it is still falling below that capacity. On September 14, it produced just 10 million gallons on its conventional treatment side and 14.1 million gallons on its membrane treatment side, MEMA reports show.

Jackson’s smaller J.H. Fewell plant produced around 26.39 million gallons, bringing the total amount produced for the city to 50.49 gallons, the MEMA incident report shows.

“What we’ve learned is that the system had the ability to produce about 70 million gallons a day if everything is operating perfectly,” Reeves said. “What I’ve seen over the last 15 days, looking at my twice-a-day reports, is that the demand seems to be if we can produce 35 to 40 million gallons a day, we can keep water in the tanks and keep pressure, and that’s a good thing.”

“What that allows us to do is to take certain pieces in certain parts... offline for certain periods of time to do the maintenance, to do the things that need to be done, to make sure that we get more water produced,” he added.

Reeves was not sure how soon the system would be operating at full capacity, and when all the repairs needed would be made. “There is no timeline because it’s constant,” he said. “What we’re talking about is getting to a point in which the redundancies within the system are such that we can have significant confidence that even if something goes bad in the plant that... both the quantity of water stays at a level that keeps the pressure in the system at a level where clean water can continue to be delivered. And that’s what we’ve got more work to do, with respect to that.”

The governor fielded several questions from reporters, including whether the hiring of a project manager means the state is taking over the Curtis plant.

“I don’t think that is an inflection point that the state has taken over O.B. Curtis. I think that decision was made when the emergency declaration order was signed weeks ago, that the state would be taking over... ensuring clean water is delivered to the residents of Jackson,” he said. “That, by the way, is an unprecedented step. Never to my knowledge, certainly in the last 20 years, has the state ever done that.”

Reeves said had the state not stepped in, people not being able to flush their toilets could have resulted in chaos.

“As you recall, there had already been a boil water notice in effect for 30 days. The real emergency that initiated that was not only the need to get clean water back, but also the likelihood that the O.B. Curtis facility would completely fail, and that no one in the city would be able to flush their toilets,” he said. That is not a risk that we could take a chance on because if that were to occur, chaos would ensue.”

“That’s the reason we came in two Mondays ago. It’s the reason we immediately went to work to fix the quantity of water issue, the pressure issue, to ensure while it may not immediately deliver clean water, that at least we could deliver an adequate supply of water... to ensure the toilets would flush,” he said. “But obviously, all the while, we were prioritizing quantity of water, we were also working to fix things within the plant.”

Reeves did not say when the plant would be turned back over to the city, adding that he was unsure how much longer the city would be able to manage its system.

“Decisions with respect to the governance of the water system in Jackson are much more complicated discussions, there are a lot of individuals that will have opinions with respect to that. Anything that ultimately [leads] to a changing governance structure is actually going to have to be decided upon and voted upon by the Mississippi Legislature. But it could also, just to be fair, outside the control of even the Mississippi Legislature,” he said. “The EPA is an entity that has a say in this as well.”

Reeves says Jackson has made little progress addressing mandates in a 2020 EPA administrative order. The city council approved entering into an agreed order with the agency regarding that document a year later. Repairs related to it could have cost as much as $170 million.

“There is the possibility, there is the potential that the EPA could come in and attempt to take over operations,” the governor said. “I’m not opining today as to whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing. I’m just telling you that is a possibility.”

We have reached out to EPA for a response to the governor’s comments, but have not heard back.

Jackson Director of Communications Melissa Faith Payne says the city has no comment regarding Reeves’s statements and said the city continues to work with its partners to ensure citizens of Jackson’s needs are put first.

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