(Jackson, Miss.)– Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and third party administrator Ted Henifin hosted a town hall Wednesday night to give residents an update on the latest developments of the City’s agreement with the Department of Justice, EPA and Mississippi Department of Health over its beleaguered water system.
The agreement includes the selection of Henifin to oversee water operations in Jackson, and is an ongoing collaboration that represents a critical next step in efforts to provide immediate and long-term solutions for Jackson’s water issues. It allows the City of Jackson to move forward in the most beneficial direction to secure a more sustainable, affordable and equitable system.
The town hall provided an opportunity for officials to explain to the public what the agreement is and how it will work. Most importantly, it allowed the Mayor to explain what it will mean to the residents and businesses of Jackson, who have borne the brunt of the system’s failures for years.
“We are excited about this agreement because it brings that expertise we’ve been talking about,” Lumumba said. “We’re excited about this agreement because we know we can work with partners who have a sincere interest in providing safe drinking water to the residents in Jackson.”
The gathering at Forest Hill High School follows three separate town halls with residents in which the Mayor and city officials outlined the status of the water system and provided up to date details on where the City stood during the recent flood and extended systemwide boil water notice.
Lumumba sought to answer as many questions as possible from residents at the gathering, as well as correct misinformation that has circulated in recent days. He made it clear that the City’s water system is not being taken over by the federal government.
“I think it’s important to make clear that what you are witnessing is not a takeover, but an agreement, a stipulated agreement,” Lumumba said. “In fact, when an agency of the federal government chooses to take something over, you are not invited to the table to be part of that. We are at the table.”
Henifin, who comes to Jackson with over 40 years of water operations experience, outlined his approach to the water treatment plants, well systems and distribution lines on a short-term, mid-term and long-term basis. He noted that many of the fixes will take years to complete – the aging distribution lines in particular – but the City would gradually see restoration of its infrastructure.
According to the agreement, Henifin will oversee all City of Jackson water operations for the next 12 months. He is tasked with the following:
- Ensuring the water system is in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act
- Management of the City’s Water/Sewer Business Administration
- Implementation of capital improvements, in particular, a set of priority projects to improve the system’s near-term stability
- Correction of conditions that present, or may present, an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of the city’s residents.
- Oversee ways to generate revenue; consider equitable payment structures to ensure water bills are affordable
“If you haven’t recognized, this is a huge, huge task,” Henifin said. “But I believe we have all the tools, people, expertise and federal support that we are going to need funding-wise to make a difference.”
“I do think we are on a good path and I’m feeling very positive about where we are and the people we have lined up, and the support I’ve been getting from the city,” he continued.
The Mayor repeated his opposition to privatization, regionalization or a state takeover of the water system, noting his vision to keep the water system in City hands to avoid predictable rate increases and additional uncertainty.
Lumumba and Henifin stressed that the immensity of the City’s challenges will not be solved over night, but will take time and continued cooperation with all parties involved. However, the Mayor said the City of Jackson is in a unique situation that is bolstered by an unprecedented collaboration of expertise and additional funding possibilities.
The Mayor has spoken directly with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with congressional representatives, on the water crisis in Jackson. He has met with EPA Administrator Michael Regan and affected residents during Regan’s four separate trips to Jackson in multiple attempts to secure needed funding.
He said he is hopeful Jackson could become a test case for other areas of the country that have experienced similar struggles with their ability to produce consistently clean and quality water to its residents.
“I believe that what is in front of us is the best opportunity in any of our lifetimes to improve Jackson’s water system,” Lumumba said. “We are reaching for a condition that will not put us into another state of misery…the best is yet to come.”