Impact Voices | September 7, 2022

Three shifts needed to build resilient water systems in Jackson, Miss. and other U.S. cities

Seyi Fabode

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Guest Author

Seyi Fabode

The (shocking but unsurprising) sad news is that 173,000 residents of Jackson, Miss. will be out of water indefinitely. This water issue is not new in Jackson – 40,000 residents were without drinkable water during the winter storm earlier this year (2022) and the Pearl River has been flooding Jackson for decades – what should be new is how we address the problem.

Rather than contribute to the outrage that is (rightly) being expressed, I felt it was best to offer up concrete solutions that the leaders in Jackson can take to start to address the situation and prevent/mitigate future occurrences. Solutions that should be applied in thousands of cities across the US currently facing a water crisis.

But first, some history and context setting.

Fourth U.S. water crisis

In New Amsterdam (now New York) in the 1780s/90s, 2000 people died from what doctors believed were waterborne diseases. This was the first water crisis in American history. 

In 1798, Aaron Burr (yes, the same one) found a way to use this tragedy to his own benefit. Burr parlayed the government’s desire to address the water problem, into forming and appropriating surplus capital into the first privately owned water company, The Manhattan Company. 

But Aaron Burr wasn’t much concerned with cleaning and distributing drinkable water to residents. He was more concerned with starting a bank with the $2 million ($42 million in 2022 dollars) that he’d appropriated. That bank is still with us today as it was the oldest of the institutions that formed (what we now know as) JPMorgan Chase. 

The second water crisis in the US was after World War II and the billions of dollars that the government made available went into laying most of the infrastructure that we still use today. 

Similarly, the third water crisis in the US in the 1970s – the tipping point being the industrial pollution of the Cuyahoga River and a river fire which some claim led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency – led to the appropriation of $60 billion of funds and the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972. 

The 1972 Clean Water Act is still the prevailing law under which the water systems in the US are managed. We now find ourselves fighting a war with battles from a previous war. To continue as usual would be sheer folly. 

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Figure 1: Reuters Headline

Fixing water in Jackson

We find ourselves in the fourth water crisis. Evidenced by incidents in Jackson; cities in Texas; wide swathes of California; Flint, Mich., etc. And the response cycle is repeating itself with i) outrage and ii) short-term solutions. 

Like the last three cycles, roughly $67 billion of government funding (the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Acts) has been made available to build and implement solutions. But we now need a more robust approach to solutions. 

This will require three ‘paradigm’ shifts in our cities:

  • Data-driven action. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides updates to its flood prediction data weekly. 174k residents of Jackson, MS have lost access to drinking water indefinitely even though we had the data predicting the flooding that impacted the Curtis Treatment Plant. 

    Earlier this year, about 40,000 residents experienced outages due to freezing at this same treatment plant. Using the data we have, and there is a lot of it, enables predictions and risk models for future floods. 

    Based on those (and other relevant data like weather, hydrographic, hydrologic, paleoclimatic proxies, etc) Jackson leaders can determine exactly what assets and resources can be deployed to alleviate the current situation and prevent future occurrences. 

    For example, instead of plastic water bottles could we deploy micro-infrastructure in the form of point-of-exit water filters to improve the quality of water that residents use? The funding for solutions like this, and more, is out there but leaders have to make data-driven capital improvement asks.
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Fig 2: 13 active monitoring locations in Pearl River watershed managed by USGS.

  • Add redundancy to the system. The Curtis Plant is about 30 years old and treats 50Mgl water/day. That treatment capacity dropped by half due to the winter storm of 2022 and is currently down to zero.

    This plant is relatively new compared to the bulk of the US’s water infrastructure which gets a C- grade in the Infrastructure Report Card generated by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

    While new(ish) it is time to consider what back-up assets (large and small) should be deployed across Jackson to prevent the Curtis Treatment Plant from being this one failure point that takes down the whole city.

    Part of resilience is building in redundancy to increase the ability of a system to recover (and even improve) post-stresses and shocks. Using just 26 possible vectors of water outage failure (assets, source water availability, flooding, natural disasters, etc ), one ends up with 4.23912 x E^88 possible failure/risk profiles and outage possibilities.

    With this terribly high number of possible ways that a water system could fail, it is critical to build redundancies into our water system. Redundant assets, as suggested above, that can be justified with data.  
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Fig 3: Spectrum (and #) of failure profiles for water systems (Low, Medium, High)

  • (Re)build distributed systems. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has 13 monitoring stations in the Pearl River watershed, providing valuable decision-making hydrographic and water quality information.

    In addition to the USGS data and monitoring capability, a flood control project was initiated in 1961 when the river crested at 37.3 feet and caused major damage to the Flowood area.

    In Jackson, like thousands of cities, capital projects and resource allocation has not tracked where violations or outages occurred.

    Due to changing watersheds, source water availability etc, we should rebuild our water system in new ways and in new places; ensuring the same treated water isn’t used for drinking as is used for flushing our toilets and recognizing the impacts of new flood plains or watersheds (for e.g.) in permitting.

    (Re)building differently should also consider the issues of environmental injustice and we should redesign for interconnected micro-water systems that can serve smaller clusters in a city. These micro-systems can act as back up (resilience) to other micro-water systems during environmental stress or shock incidents.

    Rebuilding differently means moving away from the centralized water distribution model – limiting the impact of a failure of the centralized system – to a more distributed system (especially as we see more climate change impacts).

The water crisis in Jackson is tragic and emotions are boiling over. But the critical decisions for recovery actions and building water resilience should be data-driven. Pure emotion will lead to short-term palliative actions that’ll leave long-term negative consequences; we can only hand out bottled water for so long (we will have to deal with plastic waste that will litter the city). 

There are practical infrastructure plans and decisions we can make, in the short term, to address the emergency and reduce the time to recovery, for the long term resilience of Jackson’s water system. 

We have the tools. What we don’t have is much time.

A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Seyi Fabode is the CEO and co-founder of Varuna.