I tend to take clean, plentiful water for granted. I’m guessing that most of us do. That faith was undermined a couple of weeks ago when a water main break half a block away left my household without water for more than 6 hours. What was doubly annoying was that we had out-of-town guests staying with us at the time. A planned “dinner in” turned into “dinner out” but we survived and water service was restored before we went to bed.This type of occurrence is disturbingly common in my Kansas City neighborhood of 80-year old homes. I sometimes think the water department has a plan to replace water lines 8 feet at a time. I should probably count my blessings, however, because as inconvenient as water line breaks are, things are much worse elsewhere.
A couple of months ago, Jackson, Mississippi was in the headlines because the 150,000 residents of the city were without municipal water for an extended period of time. Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency, warning that there wasn’t enough water “to fight fires, to reliably flush toilets, and to meet other critical needs.”  This crisis dragged out for days and is still not totally resolved.
The headlines blamed torrential rains which flooded the Pearl River and, in turn, the Ross Barnett Reservoir, a 33,000-acre lake that provides water to Jackson. But the more I read the more it became clear that this wasn’t a story about a one-time flooding event. The current water crisis is just the most recent twist in a long-running saga that is so incomprehensible that it struck me as the public works version of a slow-motion train wreck – except this train wreck has been playing out for years.
The real story is one of political and managerial incompetence, exposed by several unexpected weather events, and amplified by our human tendency to defer hard decisions until there is a crisis at hand. Let’s review:
Heavy rain in August did, in fact, flood the Pearl River and the Barnett Reservoir. Flood waters often contain high levels of silt and other contaminants which must be filtered out by water treatment plants before being distributed through the water system. This additional filtration load slowed down the volume of water that could be treated by the city’s two treatment facilities to the point that the city’s water towers effectively ran dry. Without water in the water towers, there is not enough water pressure to distribute water through the water mains, and a water system without pressure is susceptible to contamination.
The flooding and the resulting filtration problem was certainly unfortunate, but it was hardly the type of thing that couldn’t have been foreseen and planned for by the water system staff. The problem was exacerbated because the main pumps at the primary treatment plant were out of service – and had been out of service for weeks prior to the flooding. The plant was operating with lower capacity backup pumps and suffered from a variety of other treatment components that had either failed or were operating at limited capacity because of years of deferred maintenance. Even the secondary treatment plant experienced pump issues during this same time period. 
It might be tempting to write this off as a really bad week for the City of Jackson, except that it wasn’t just one week. The city had been under a “boil water notice” since July because the state health department had detected water quality issues. This was just the most recent of a series of such notices that have been issued over the past couple of years. In addition, the system has suffered from high lead levels since 2016 to the degree that city officials recommend that pregnant women and children under five not drink tap water. In March of 2020, the EPA issued an emergency order because the system represented an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to its customers.
In 2021, roughly a third of the city’s residents were without running water for more than two weeks because of an unexpectedly severe cold snap. Screens which filter incoming water from the reservoir had frozen solid preventing water from entering the treatment plant. Water towers in the southern part of town (furthest from the treatment plants) once more ran dry because the volume of available water was insufficient to keep them even partially full. Again, this was an avoidable problem that better facility design and system management could have addressed, but years of underfunding, staffing shortages and deferred maintenance gutted any hope of contingency planning or system resilience.
Why is the water system underfunded? The answer starts with the fact that Jackson has lost more than 20 percent of its population to suburban areas (with their own water systems) over the past several decades, leaving the population not only smaller but also disproportionately poor. There are an estimated 4,000 abandoned properties that are served by the aging network of water mains but which obviously generate no revenue for the water system. Parts of Jackson’s 1,500 miles of water mains are more than 100 years old and in obvious need of replacement. 
Perhaps more importantly, the city’s billing system has had chronic problems. Some residents receive no bill, others receive bills that are exorbitantly high. In 2013, the city signed a $91 million contract to replace water meters and implement a new water billing system but the work was plagued with problems. Many of the meters did not work properly and many of those that did work could not be read remotely as had been planned. The billing software had so many glitches that support lines were swamped with calls. It got so bad that at one point a city councilmember simply advised people to “pay what they think they owe.” 
Fortunately, there are few water systems that are as badly run as the one in Jackson. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that there aren’t significant problems in older cities all across the country. Clean water is essential to our health and our way of life, but the systems that supply it are surprisingly fragile in many places.
This past August as temperatures approached 100 degrees in Newark, New Jersey, a 140-year old, 72-inch water main broke leaving much of the city without water. Hospitals closed their doors to non-emergency patients, streets were transformed into brown rivers, and a resulting sinkhole swallowed a car.  The break was fixed, but the majority of that same water main is still ancient and still vulnerable to breaks.
In February of 2021, a series of severe winter storms triggered a crisis across the state of Texas. Four-and-a-half million customers were without power, but what was less reported was that 12 million people had their water service disrupted due to freezing and bursting pipes. Numerous buildings were damaged, fire hydrants became unusable, and streets were flooded. The City of Austin lost 325 million gallons of water to burst pipes, and “boil orders” were common across the state. 
In New Orleans, the majority of the city’s 1,600 miles of water mains are more than 80 years old. The city spends roughly half of water system resources to fix breaks, which are so numerous that nearly half of the treated water in the system never reaches customers. 
There are more examples I could cite, but I’m not trying to play Chicken Little – the vast majority of public water systems are going to continue to supply plenty of safe water for us to drink, cook and shower with. The point of this brief list is that there are multiple ways in which water systems can fail. Problems with the source, the treatment plant or the distribution network can each cause a major disruption. The overarching issue is that many of these systems are closer to the brink of disaster than most people know. All it may take is an unexpected natural disaster or an unfortunate system malfunction to create a new “water crisis” story in your city. It doesn’t need to be this way and, given our dependence on water systems for our way of life, it shouldn’t happen as frequently as it does.
The Source of System Fragility
Almost every water crisis has a relatively straightforward solution that could have been implemented prior to the crisis ever occurring. The reason they are not implemented is almost always a lack of money. Treatment plants could be fortified against the effects of flooding and the subsequent decline in water quality. Old water mains could be systematically replaced before they break. Severe cold snaps, wildfires or droughts are all predictable events that should have been anticipated and addressed with contingency plans. If only there was enough money to get those things done before the crisis hit.
The reason there isn’t enough money boils down to two basic reasons. The first is simple human nature – we are much more inclined to respond to a crisis than to prevent a crisis by doing maintenance. Replacing a 100-year old water main or worn out water pumps before they break will never be preceded by a fancy ribbon-cutting ceremony or followed by a story in the newspaper lauding the wisdom of local politicians.
Despite the warnings of professional staff that deferred maintenance often ends badly, it will almost always seem preferable to use maintenance money to reduce utility rates or to build some new amenity that taxpayers will be happy to remember the next time they vote. And water systems are not unique in this regard. Deferred maintenance is a problem with virtually every category of public and private infrastructure. We do it ourselves when we delay replacing the roof on our house or the tires on our car even though we know we are risking our own personal crisis. Why should we expect any better from our politicians?
The second reason is more significant and more difficult to resolve. Cities across the country have created their own financial fragility by allowing (and even chasing) low density growth that has leapfrogged over vacant land in seemingly random ways. This sprawling development pattern results in an equally sprawling pattern of roads, water lines, sewer lines, and other utilities that saddle cities with long-term maintenance obligations and underwhelming tax revenue. The City of Jackson, for example, nearly tripled in size geographically between 1960 and 2020, but only increased 6 percent in population.  Is it surprising that Jackson’s municipal revenue didn’t keep pace with maintenance needs?
The devious part of this pattern is that it is popular with individual residents or businesses hoping to build, while at the same time appearing to be at least fiscally neutral to city officials. The subdivision of expensive homes on half-acre lots or the big box shopping center surrounded by acres of parking seem like a significant new source of revenue. At the same time, much of the initial infrastructure is provided by the developer so costs to the city seem minimal. At first, the new revenue helps cities resolve existing problems in other parts of the community. But over time, roads must be widened and traffic signals installed to serve these outlying developments. New fire stations are needed, additional police patrols are added, and new parks are planned. At the same time, disinvestment is taking place in the older parts of the city leading to the early signs of blight and to falling property values.
That “new revenue” which was so enticing earlier is now insufficient to cover all of the costs, and so cities chase more development even further out from the edge of town. At some point, that once new infrastructure needs maintenance but there is no money available so that work is deferred and fingers are crossed. Welcome to what Charles Marohn calls the “growth Ponzi scheme.”  The bottom line is that, absent exceptionally high taxes, sprawling low-density development will never cover the long-term cost of the infrastructure needed to support it. Thus, cities all across the country are becoming financially fragile and the seeds of the next “crisis” are being planted.
It is tempting to tell the citizens of Jackson (or the citizens of other cities facing some type of crisis) to simply exercise some fiscal discipline in other parts of their budget so that more money can be spent fixing the water system (or whatever system is broken). The problem is that in almost every case all of the simple fixes have long since been implemented and still haven’t been sufficient. Cities that are in crisis mode have painted themselves into a corner and the only fixes left are drastic ones, such as raising taxes or cutting essential services such as police and fire protection. Those kinds of changes are likely to cause existing residents and businesses to flee to other locations which, in turn, accelerates fiscal shortfalls rather than solving them. To prevent a crisis situation, there are three things to remember.
Bigger is better. Most utility systems operate more efficiently if they are regional in size rather than municipal. Cities often want the control that comes from having their own water and sewer systems but they pay a high price once they are boxed in by other cities and the “growth Ponzi scheme” is broken. A regional system doesn’t guarantee that a crisis won’t occur but it reduces the odds because the governing body of a regional utility tends to be more focused on the needs of the system and less likely to shortchange maintenance needs. In addition, regional systems can often take advantage of economies of scale which can reduce unit costs. Politicians that argue for “local control” are generally seeking the ability to implement policies which favor developers at the expense of a sound financial foundation.
Focus inward, not outward. The development focus of many communities is on outward expansion. Instead, more emphasis needs to be placed on the health and adaptive potential of existing neighborhoods. Infill development and selective redevelopment can often meet many of the needs of a growing population or a changing commercial environment without the need to expand road and utility infrastructure. For most communities, outward expansion will still occur but it should be as a response to needs that cannot be met internally rather than as an end in itself. The problem is that new development on the edge of town is always easier than the redevelopment of existing neighborhoods, so political pressure and expediency tends to push cities into building something new and shiny rather than nurturing what they already have.
Rethink the rate structure. In most cities, water rates consist of a connection fee (usually based on the size of the connection) and a water usage fee. The problem is that the cost of delivering water to the customer is largely determined by the number of customers per mile of water line – a factor that is rarely included in the rate structure. This means that residents in a subdivision of 5-acre lots where there are few customers per mile of water line pay roughly the same as residents in a subdivision of 8,000 square foot lots. In my opinion, the connection charge should account for the majority of a typical user's bill and should be based on the size of the property divided by connection size. Although this type of change would make water rates more closely reflect the actual long-term cost of providing service, it is such a radical change that I doubt it will be adopted in very many jurisdictions.
We all know that everything we build will eventually break and will need to be either fixed, replaced or abandoned. Given how much I like drinking water, taking showers and flushing my toilet, I’m really hoping that the “abandonment” option is off the table in Kansas City. The fact is that our society and economy are both dependent upon cities which, in turn, are dependent upon water systems and other utilities which are frequently hidden from view and taken for granted.
Our tendency to take a casual approach to critical systems is reinforced by the long lifespan that the initial installations tend to have. When we build things that last for decades it is pretty easy to ignore or shortchange routine maintenance until a crisis is upon us. We know we shouldn’t do it but our human bias toward the short-term often overwhelms the more prudent part of our brain that tells us that planning for the long-term is the smart play. Get ready for more sad stories in the news similar to the one playing out in Jackson because I don’t see any reasons to assume that our political decision making will suddenly improve. Just hope that it isn’t your city making the headlines.
Benji Jones; “How Jackson, Mississippi, ran out of water;” Vox; September 2022; https://www.vox.com/2022/8/31/23329604/jackson-mississippi-water-crisis
Anna Wolfe; “ ‘A profound betrayal of trust’: Why Jackson’s water system is broken;” Mississippi Today; March 2021; https://mississippitoday.org/2021/03/24/why-jacksons-water-system-is-broken/
R.L. Nave; “Bills, Bills, Bills: Jackson Residents Confused by New Water Systems;” Jackson Free Press; November, 2015; https://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2015/nov/24/bills-bills-bills-jackson-residents-confused-new-w/
Jesse O’Neill; “Massive New Jersey main break leaves Neward in water emergency;” New York Post; August 2022; https://nypost.com/2022/08/09/massive-new-jersey-main-break-leaves-newark-with-water-emergency/
“2021 Texas Power Crisis”; Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Texas_power_crisis
Racheal Wolfe; “Jackson Water Crisis Puts U.S. Cities on Alert;” The Wall Street Journal; September 3, 2022.
Ella Nilson; “City with just 20 days of fresh water left finds backup source – but they aren’t out of the woods;” CNN; September 2022; https://www.cnn.com/2022/09/06/us/las-vegas-new-mexico-backup-water-source-climate
Charles Marohn; “Financial Fragility is to Blame for Jackson’s Water Crisis;” Strong Towns; September 2022;
Charles Marohn; “The Growth Ponzi Scheme;” Strong Towns; https://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme
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