JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Water is flowing again to nearly all of Mississippi’s capital city.
It’s a stark contrast from a year ago, when Jackson’s 150,000 residents could never be sure what, if anything, would flow from their taps when they needed a drink, a shower or to flush the toilet. The majority-Black city also faced occasional warnings that their water could be contaminated and needed to be boiled, and people had to wait in line to get fresh water.
The turnaround has been shepherded by Ted Henifin, a seasoned utility manager appointed last year as interim head of the long-troubled water system. He’s faced pushback from some residents over lingering water quality concerns, legal hurdles to his plan to ensure low income people don’t pay more for water, and has expanded his purview to include fixing the sewer system.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week, he offered an insider’s look at the latest chapter in a saga that blends elements of racial disparity, crumbling infrastructure and partisan politics.
Last August and September, infrastructure breakdowns caused many people in Jackson to go days and weeks without safe running water. A federal judge brought Henifin from Virginia in December.
Since then, he says he’s been laying the groundwork for an improved water network.
“The system is acting like what I would consider a normal water system for a city of 150,000,” Henifin said. “In the future, we shouldn’t have city-wide boil water notices.”
Day-to-day efforts have included fixing valves and broken pipes from which gallons of wasted water once spilled into creeks and up through fire hydrants.
WATER PRICING — WHO PAYS?
One of Henifin’s top priorities has been increasing Jackson’s revenue collection from the water system without raising rates in a city where roughly a quarter of the population lives in poverty. He initially floated a plan to price water based on property values to shift the burden away from Jackson’s poorest residents.
Months later, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law mandating that water be billed based on personal consumption, not other factors like property values. Henifin said he has adapted to that new legal reality with a proposal he’ll share before the end of the year. He declined to offer details about the proposal, as he still needs to run it by city officials. But he believes it addresses concerns from the Democratic-led city and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“I’ve spent a lot of time working within the confines of that law, and I think we’ve developed a proposal,” Henifin said. “We have talked to the state about it to make sure we don’t run into a similar buzzsaw.
“I think other utilities across the country are going to look hard at the proposal as a new method of helping the lower socio-economic demographic be able to afford water,” he said.
Henifin said the city’s water bill collection rate has gone from 56% in the second quarter to over 62% in the third quarter. “People are voting with their money,” he said.
When he first arrived, Henifin told the AP he would race to finish his work in one year or less. Now, he has decided to manage the water and sewer systems for up to four years.
The extended timeframe will allow him to implement more of the $600 million trove of federal funds allotted to help the city’s water system, most of which hasn’t been spent yet. He also said he feels more connected to the community than when he first moved to Jackson.
“The small staff we’ve created, the contractors that have stepped up, I just can’t walk away from that,” Henifin said.
PUSHBACK FROM ACTIVISTS
In September, activist groups who want more of a say over water system reforms asked to join a federal lawsuit against the city for violating safe water standards.
Henifin said the activists don’t speak for most people in the city.
“It’s very frustrating to think that in probably any context, whether it’s in Jackson or some other national conversation in some other city, a small group of well-connected and organized people can pass themselves off as a representative of the community,” Henifin said.
He said public comments reviewed by the Department of Justice have been overwhelmingly supportive. The support extends across racial lines, he said.
“I hear that in the community all over the place,” Henifin said. “When these folks coming up to me on the street, Black and white, that are just like ‘You’re doing a great job, don’t listen to that noise.’”
One of the groups suing to get more control is the People’s Advocacy Institute. The principal officer listed on GuideStar, an information service on U.S. nonprofit organizations, is Candace Abdul-Tawwab. She is married to Tariq Abdul-Tawwab, the former Jackson Water chief experience officer Henifin fired, he said.
“It just didn’t work out. Kind of makes you wonder what the motivation is there,” Henifin said.
In an email Tuesday, Candace Abdul-Tawwab said that comment from Henifin was “unfortunate.”
“It’s an old tactic to try to single out organizations in an attempt to divide us. We won’t be divided. We remain steadfast in our efforts to ensure community voices are heard,” Abdul-Tawwab said.
HIS NEXT PROITITY: SEWER STRUGGLES
Henifin’s legal authority has been extended to the city’s sewer system.
The drinking water order was put in place last November under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The sewer order went into effect at the end of September under the Clean Water Act. Henifin plans to manage both in a four-year window.
“The sewer order has a four-year term, with the anticipation that at the end of the fourth year, the city will be back under a consent decree. They didn’t make any real progress under the consent decree that was put in place in 2013, so the judge has stayed those decree requirements,” Henifin said. “That’s different than the water order, which has no end date. It’s over when the judge believes that the system is stable. The water order could transition to longer-term judicial oversight, but we don’t really know what the future is.”