Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | There’s federal funding available to make badly needed water infrastructure upgrades in communities of color harmed by years of disinvestment. But the onus is on state lawmakers to direct the money to places that need it most.
For two weeks, Jackson, Mississippi’s 150,000 residents have gone without access to safe water after heavy rainfall and flooding caused a major water plant to fail. Eighty-two percent of the city’s population is Black and nearly 25% lives in poverty. For the first of the two weeks, residents could not flush toilets, schools shifted to virtual learning, businesses shouldered additional costs to meet health requirements, and a major medical facility’s air-conditioning system was compromised. Residents have had to wait for hours outside local distribution sites to get bottled water to drink, cook, and brush their teeth, and some have been turned away after supplies were quickly depleted.
While water pressure has been restored and the boil water notice lifted, one resident reported lacking proper running water for a year and a half. This crisis—and many similar ones—is the perfect storm of environmental injustice, climate change, health inequities and long-standing disinvestment in critical infrastructure. It’s now up to state and local lawmakers to address the crisis and ensure it never happens again in Jackson or elsewhere.
The issues with Jackson’s water system are not new. Residents were under a boil-water notice due to the likely presence of disease-causing pathogens in the water supply for about a month. In 2021, the city’s water service was interrupted for a month after a winter storm caused aging pipes to freeze and burst. The Environmental Protection Agency has consistently documented issues with Jackson’s waterworks, including a failed inspection in 2020. Earlier this year, the EPA announced it sent letters to Mississippi policymakers calling for previously dispersed federal funds to be spent on water infrastructure in Jackson. Even after a July 2021 agreement to address the EPA’s concerns, a subsequent report found evidence of inadequate staffing and a lack of routine and preventive maintenance just a month before the system’s most recent failure.
Despite Jackson’s crumbling infrastructure and persistent safety concerns, the city has continued to bill residents normal water rates. In addition to her water bill, one low-income Jackson resident spends $200 per month on bottled water for her family. And an 86-year-old reported waiting in a two-mile line for free water distributed by the city. Yet, predominantly Republican state leaders continue to shift the blame and responsibility onto Jackson’s Democratic leadership. During the city’s 2021 water crisis, Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Tate Reeves stated that city officials must “collect their water bill payments before asking everyone else to pony up money.” State officials also blame Black leaders in Jackson, insinuating that their governance, rather than inadequate support from the state, has led the city to crisis.
Fortunately, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Biden signed into law last fall, includes $55 billion for states to address water infrastructure, a critical opportunity to invest in public health in disadvantaged communities. Distribution of these funds, however, is up to the discretion of state legislatures. Therefore, the $429 million in federal funds dedicated to clean water initiatives in Mississippi over the next five years may not even reach Jackson, despite the city’s dire need. During the 2021 winter storm, for example, the state legislature only provided 6% of the funding that Black community leaders requested.
The legislature’s systematic disinvestment in majority-Black Jackson is no accident. The majority-white legislature has a long history of enacting racist policies that have prohibited the city from developing infrastructure that is resilient to natural disasters and that can help to guarantee access to potable, running water.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s story is not unique. Baltimore, another majority-Black city, is currently facing a crisis of E. coli contamination in its water. Flint, Michigan, also with a majority-Black population and more than 1 in 3 residents living in poverty, faced a water crisis with lasting health consequences. Nationwide, communities in states ranging from Hawaii to Texas to New York face ongoing water crises. Residents should not be doomed to suffer. Federal funding already exists to help local governments around the country upgrade their water systems to better meet the needs of their residents.
Communities of color and low-income communities have consistently borne the brunt of climate change, and their already-fragile infrastructure is under increasing threat of failure. Centuries of environmental racism have put these communities at the forefront of pollution, natural disasters, inadequate resources and public services, and carcinogenic contaminants. These communities face floods, hurricanes, extreme heat and other climate risks. But due to long-standing neglect and continued disinvestment, they also lack the resources to adapt, recover and build resilient systems and infrastructure.
States already have tools to disperse essential funding to the communities that need it most. For example, the White House's Justice40 Initiative—which requires 40% of benefits from relevant federal investments to target disadvantaged communities—has a beta version Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool that can guide state leaders to spend their funds equitably. States can use the Justice40 Funding Finder and Resource Guide to filter funding opportunities and explore funding amounts, eligibility, deadlines, and other important information.
As states receive IIJA funds to advance Justice40 programs, they are required to spend nearly half of IIJA water funds on vulnerable and underserved communities within their borders. Yet, states have discretion in how they define underserved communities and where they will direct the funds. State leaders must ensure critical funds are directed to communities like Jackson and weigh community input and needs—an important step to address long-failing infrastructure and avert future crises.
Marquisha Johns is the associate director for public health at the Center for American Progress. Nicole Rapfogel is the research associate for health policy at the Center.