Thirst: In Depth
- Justice at the Tap
Justice at the Tap
For Jackson, Flint, and the Navajo Nation, clean water shouldn’t be a pipe dream.
It’s a Thursday afternoon, and Tranita Davis is carting cases of water to the curb outside the M.W. Stringer Grand Lodge near Jackson State University’s sprawling campus.
Davis, who spends her days teaching at Crystal Springs High School, is still dressed in the T-shirt and sweatpants that comprise her after-school soccer practice uniform. Before long, cars begin pulling into the lodge’s parking lot, located in the heart of West Jackson, Mississippi, one of the city’s poorest and Blackest neighborhoods. No matter; Davis greets each person with her usual effervescent smile while she loads water into their trunks and back seats.
Davis, a Grand Officer in Mississippi’s Maurice F. Lucas Sr. Prince Hall Order of the Eastern Star, had been leading the chapter’s water distribution efforts for more than a month. She says the Eastern Stars and its male counterpart, the Masons, distributed thousands of cases of water from the Grand Lodge’s Lynch Street parking lot between July and August 2022. Six months later, the lodge is still housing cases of unused water, just waiting for the next crisis. “It will happen again,” Davis says. “It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when.” Davis’ assertion is more fact than opinion.
In February 2021, a winter storm brought below-freezing temperatures and around 2 inches of sleet to Mississippi. As a result, the Ross Barnett Reservoir—which Jackson’s main plant, O.B. Curtis, uses to filter water—was filled with frozen slush. This led the plant’s equipment to freeze and more than 80 water mains to break throughout the city. Residents spent weeks without water.
This trend continued in August 2022 when torrential rains flooded the Pearl River and overwhelmed O.B. Curtis. These cascading events triggered a crisis that led Jackson residents to be without clean or running water for weeks at a time between July and September 2022.
Before Jackson’s water woes became national news, its residents endured years of periodic boil water notices and water shutdowns due to line breaks, burst pipes, and high levels of lead and other bacteria. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves have consistently blamed each other for the water crisis, but those with knowledge of the city’s history note that the root cause of this problem is much deeper than electoral politics. “When the water crisis hit, it really became very clear that … the narrative in some circles that was being told was one of the failures within the city or the failure of city leadership to properly address the water crisis over time,” says Robert Luckett, associate professor of history at Jackson State University. “As a historian, that narrative was just wrong.”
To understand Jackson’s water crisis, Luckett, who has extensively studied Mississippi’s history, says it’s critical to examine the historical relationship between Jackson, the state’s predominantly Black capital city, and the broader state’s conservative power structure. “It is a history, I would argue, that is, in fact, rooted in the civil rights movement,” Luckett explains. “And for me, we have to go at least 50 years back to kind of examine the roots of what has been an increasingly hostile relationship.”
He notes three events that brought Jackson to this crossroads: In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education that 30 of the 33 school districts operating in Mississippi could “no longer operate as a unitary school system within which no person is to be effectively excluded from any school because of race or color” after Feb. 1, 1970. As a result, more than 10,000 students left Jackson’s public schools for either the newly opened segregationist academies or the predominantly white suburbs in Clinton, Madison, and Rankin Counties.
“The parents of those children in 1970 represented the white power structure in the state,” Luckett says. “They represented the political, economic, social, and religious white leadership in the state of Mississippi. When they withdrew their children from the public schools, they withdrew their support for education at Jackson and desegregation, and they also began immediately withdrawing their support for the city itself.” This withdrawal continued through the 1980s, when the city changed its form of government to an elected city council.
Before Henry J. Kirksey and 16 other Black residents of Jackson sued the city to transform its government from a three-member commission to a city council, Jackson’s growing Black population had no governing representation. After the 1981 ruling, the city council welcomed its first Black member and first female member, which prompted another round of white flight and increased the antagonistic relationship between the state and the city. Between 1980 and 1990, the white population in Jackson dropped from 52% to 43%, according to the Jackson Free Press.
That trend continued between 1990 and 2000, when another 35,000 white residents left the city. Coincidentally, in 1997, Jackson also elected its first Black mayor, Harvey Johnson Jr. That decade-long exodus also took much of the city’s tax base. Now, 83% of the population is Black and 26% of the residents are living in poverty. As the city became poorer, it began lacking the financial resources needed to improve the now 100-year-old water system. As the conservative state delegation now pushes to privatize Jackson’s water system, Mayor Lumumba has faced several obstacles to securing funding. Members of the city’s legislative delegation attempted to get the city an additional $42 million from the state in 2021, but failed when the bill containing the appropriation died in committee.
“What you have seen is intentional efforts to prevent the city of Jackson from being able to support its water system,” Luckett says. “There has been money appropriated by the federal government in the past to support the city of Jackson’s water structure [and] water system, money that has been deferred and has been manipulated about the state and never reached the city. There’s been a complete failure of the state to invest in the capital city, and it’s to the benefit of the people who have the political power.”
Flint, Michigan, another predominantly Black city where 35.5% of residents live below the poverty level, has been battling a similar water issue for nearly a decade. On the morning of our interview, Melissa Mays, operations manager at Flint Rising, a coalition of grassroots organizations fighting to secure clean water and other resources for Flint residents, texts that she is running behind. She later explains that she had to do a plumbing fix before taking what she describes as a chemical shower. “Every morning, you shower, which turns the chemicals into steam that gives you rashes, burns your eyes, and gives you a bloody nose—oh, and cancer,” she says. “It’s that kind of fight every morning, besides what’s that smell, which this morning was an interesting mix of fried chicken mixed with chlorine.”
Mays has lived in Flint since 2002. There, the water crisis, which captured the attention of the nation nine years ago, remains unresolved. Much like the city of Jackson’s issues, Flint’s water crisis can be linked to white flight, racial zoning, segregation, and redlining. At one time, the city boasted the highest median income in the state, thanks to a booming auto industry. In fact, the Modern Housing Corporation, a subsidiary of General Motors, had to begin building homes in 1919 to accommodate the influx of General Motors workers. However, Black Flint residents were excluded from these housing opportunities: Restrictive covenants forbade anyone who was not white to occupy the homes in the new Civic Park neighborhood and relegated Black residents to the Floral Park and St. John Street areas.
The city leveled a portion of the St. John Street neighborhood and nearly all of the Floral Park neighborhood in the 1960s and ’70s to construct Interstate 475, which led racial minorities to be sequestered in communities with diminished tax bases. Then came the financial crisis: The closing of General Motors in the ’90s tanked tax revenue. Laid-off workers left the city, triggering a population decline. Properties were left vacant when homeowners rushed to leave without waiting to sell. This decline affected Flint’s three main income sources—property tax, state revenue sharing, and income tax. The city, unable to overcome its $25 million financial burden, was placed under emergency management in 2011.
Flint’s financial situation gave cover for Gov. Rick Snyder to enact Public Act 436, which grants Michigan’s governor power to appoint emergency managers to run cities, towns, and school districts deemed to be in financial distress. In April 2014, Flint’s Emergency Director Darnell Earley opted to switch the city’s main water system from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River under the guise of saving the city money. Within weeks, foul-smelling brown water began to pour from faucets.
“In the summer of 2014, just a couple months after the switch, we started getting rashes,” Mays recalls. “I got one, and my kids got them on their backs and shoulders. [At first,] I thought maybe it was dry skin. I even ended up getting this patch on my face. I worked in promotions and marketing, so I used to have to make a joke about ‘Oh, it’s not leprosy. I promise I just have Flint water.’ We’d all laugh because the excuse was that river water was just harder.” It was much more serious than that. Across the city, residents began reporting rashes, hair loss, muscle and body aches, and other seemingly random symptoms.
By June 2014, the first case of Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially fatal disease contracted by inhaling water droplets contaminated with bacteria, was diagnosed. “All of a sudden in September 2014, my youngest got pneumonia, which was very weird,” Mays says. “Now we know that it most likely was Legionnaires’ disease, a form of deadly bacterial pneumonia, but nobody was telling doctors to test for it.” Flint switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015, but the damage was already done. Earley faced scrutiny in federal court, where plaintiffs argued that Public Act 436 is unconstitutional because it disproportionately targets impoverished Black communities. These legal challenges were largely unsuccessful.
The true impact of Flint’s water crisis will likely not be seen for generations. Recent medical studies have found that the proportion of children living in Flint with elevated water-lead levels doubled after the city changed its water source. Tens of thousands of residents have also been exposed to dangerous levels of lead and suffered horrific side effects, including hearing loss, liver damage, and lead poisoning. At least a dozen deaths from Legionnaires’ disease have now been attributed to the contaminated water.
Mays was recently treated for cancer. Her doctors found it while treating lung and heart scarring they attributed to COVID-19. “I started having swelling and pain. My abdomen was super swollen, and my uterus was going to rupture,” she says. “I had endometrial cells, which you could not see on an ultrasound. All said, it was a six-hour surgery, and it was pretty bad. They had to bring in a second surgeon.” She’s not the only person to be diagnosed with cancer in the midst of a water crisis.
Finding New Ways to Discriminate
When she was a child, Emma Robbins, director of DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project, a community-managed utility service that brings clean running water to Navajo Nation homes, often visited her grandparents in Cameron, Arizona, a rural section of the Navajo Nation. Her grandparents didn’t have running water. Instead, the family of sheepherders hauled water from the desert wells surrounding their home. Those water sources were filled with toxic metals, including uranium, which she believes caused her grandmother’s cancer and subsequent death. “When I was 14, my grandmother passed away from stomach cancer that was related to uranium,” Robbins says. “Obviously, knowing that my story was not unique but that that [was happening] across the rez was something that I was not blind to.”
The Navajo Nation once had extremely low rates of cancer. However, in a 2019 address to Congress, former Tribal President Jonathan Nez stated that cancer was the leading cause of death for Navajos between the ages of 60 and 79, and the second leading cause of death for Navajos 80 and older. In addition to cancer, lack of clean water has created other significant health problems for those on the reservation. Kidney disease, cancer, and a neuropathic syndrome unique to children on the reservation—all linked to uranium—are plaguing the nation. “It’s not just the lack of running water that’s concerning,” Robbins says. “It’s the water sources that are available that oftentimes don’t have signage if they’re contaminated or not.”
The Navajo Nation is the largest land-based tribe, encompassing more than 27,000 square miles in the Southwest, with portions in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Toxic levels of metals are common on the land. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. federal government mined uranium on Navajo land from 1944 to 1986, with the government being the sole purchaser of that uranium until 1966. During that time, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted. Once the federal government’s lease expired, however, the mines were left abandoned, allowing the metals to leach into the soil, the groundwater, and the surface water.
“Obviously, if you dig it up, it’s out there, and radon is exposed. That’s when people can get really sick,” Robbins explains. “It’s across the rez, but there are areas where there’s more concentration. On the eastern side, there was the Church Rock Mine spill, which is one of the biggest spills in terms of problems.” On July 16, 1979, the United Nuclear Corporation’s tailings disposal pond breached its dam at the Church Rock Mine in Church Rock, New Mexico. The breach poured 1,100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Puerco River, which many Navajos use for drinking, irrigation, and livestock.
Though the spill is considered the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history, New Mexico Gov. Bruce King refused to declare the site a federal disaster area. Not only did that limit the amount of aid given to affected areas, it also prevented the community from learning about the dangers of the spill for days. The incident is reflective of a larger pattern of the government’s blatant disregard for Indigenous communities. More than 150 years ago, the Navajo and other tribes signed treaties with the federal government that promised funding for housing, infrastructure, and health care in exchange for portions of their land. For decades, that simply hasn’t happened.
Much like Flint and Jackson, the Navajo Nation has experienced systemic racism, insufficient funding, and long-delayed settlements of the tribe’s water rights claims, which resulted in failing infrastructure. Robbins says bureaucratic hurdles and lack of funding have also hampered efforts. While the Navajo Nation is located almost entirely within the Colorado River Basin—which supplies municipal water to nearly 40 million people, including major cities, such as Los Angeles, Denver, San Diego, Salt Lake City, and Albuquerque, New Mexico—
the Navajo don’t have water rights to the main stem of the river. Because of this, many rely on contaminated rivers and wells as their main water sources.
In the Navajo Nation, about 30% of families live without piped water in their homes. They are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without running water or a toilet. Without piped water, residents haul water either from regulated watering points miles away or from unregulated water sources, such as wells and springs. Robbins sees a pattern among these water crises. “I’m in a different region [than Flint or Jackson], but we still have the same struggle going on,” Robbins says. “Obviously, it’s affecting Brown and Black communities way more than other communities, and that’s a really big problem.”
Congress originally passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 1974 to guarantee all Americans access to clean, drinkable water. It authorizes the EPA to set national health-based standards for drinking water to protect against both naturally occurring and human-made contaminants. Through the SDWA, the EPA has the ability to take action that will stop “imminent and substantial endangerment to human health.” Yet a 2021 study published in Environmental Research Letters found that compliance monitoring and punitive sanctions are less likely to occur in facilities located in poor or Black and Brown communities.
The Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Watered Down Justice” report also found that communities of color as well as low-income communities have higher rates of drinking water violations than other communities. Additionally, cities with predominantly Black and Brown populations tend to spend more time out of compliance, and even when such problems are identified, they remain uncorrected for a longer period of time. However, grassroots organizers and community members are stepping up to fill the gaps left by state and federal authorities.
Organizations like Flint Rising and DigDeep collected and donated cases of bottled water. Mays and other volunteers have gone door to door to ensure residents are informed and have access to clean drinking water. The Indigenous-led Navajo Water Project installs cistern-based home water systems in homes without access to running water or sewer lines. These systems provide 1,200 gallons of water to homes, while the Project also develops new local sources from which water is pumped before it’s treated, stored, and then delivered directly to families. “We’ve seen things like hydro panels,” Robbins says. “Those are great intentions, but they’re not the best solution for a desert. You can pull moisture from the air, but if it’s not there, then what are you pulling?”
Additionally, the Project creates jobs for members of the Navajo Nation. DigDeep has partnered with the Navajo Technical University in Kirtland, New Mexico, to begin a plumbing program that trains residents to care for the community system. DigDeep also assists with bill pay and works with property owners to help upgrade existing water systems. “A huge part of what we do is making sure that we’re building relationships with the community,” Robbins says. “I think so many people on reservations, or so many Natives, are so weary. We’ve been made so many promises, starting at the treaty level [and leading to] people saying, ‘We’re gonna come in and do these projects.’”
Moses West, a retired Army Ranger, redesigned an atmospheric water generator (AWG) machine in 2015 to provide safe drinking water to people across the United States. The AWG works by extracting moisture from the air. It cools humid air until the water transforms from a gas to condensation. It then filters the condensation. The final product is clean, drinkable water. Each machine can produce up to 2,200 gallons per day, depending on its size. It can produce water from the atmosphere in regions with humidity as low as 20%.
West created the Moses West Foundation to bring sustainable clean water solutions around the world. The nonprofit collects financial donations to help build and supply AWGs to populations affected by water crises. He has used his AWG machine in both Flint and Jackson, and he was also part of relief efforts following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where he supplied an estimated 15,000 people with water. “He was helping a lot of people,” Mays says. “We have had really awesome people like Moses come and actually listen to people saying what we need, and [then respond by saying,] ‘We have this that can possibly help.’”
However, the AWG is a short-term solution. Ultimately, fixing the water crises in Flint, Jackson, the Navajo Nation, and other places will require systemic investment at every level. Home filtration systems provide an alternative solution for residents in Flint and Jackson. Still, it is a costly undertaking to ensure each home keeps a working system and replacement filters. In both cities, the permanent solution—digging up and replacing all the city’s pipes—will take time and money. In much the same way, building a permanent water system on the cavernous Navajo land will require a huge federal expenditure. Another potential solution is to dig and create private water wells. In 2021, the EPA estimated that more than 23 million U.S. households already rely on private wells for drinking. The addition of sustainable, eco-friendly water wells could provide clean, drinkable water to urban neighborhoods.
In the meantime, though, Robbins says anyone can help. The work isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding. “We’re not like unicorns,” she says. “There’s so many people out there who are serving their communities. And I think that’s so important, because it’s like, people are stepping up. It’s very hard. Not only the politics or the structure of things, but [the work] is difficult. So I always just want to shout out other people who are doing this work.”
Nearly a year after the Jackson water crisis began, Davis is still housing cases of unused water at the lodge. The Order of the Eastern Star accepted donations from several other states for weeks—even after water was restored for local residents. The annex where the initial donations were housed sits empty now, but she has a stockpile in an office next door. Other officers have discussed dispensing it, but Davis decided to hold for the next crisis. “When it happens the next time, we will be ready.”