A burst pipe in Jackson left residents without drinking water

On an abandoned golf course, overgrown with shrubs and sawgrass, you can hear the rushing water from 100 meters away.

Near Hole 4, past the small bridge and crumbling cart paths, what appears to be a waterfall comes into view, cascading through the undergrowth into the creek below. Except that the deluge of water gushing up through the mud is not from a spring-fed stream or bubbling brook.

It spews out of a broken city water pipe.

As residents had to boil their tap water and businesses closed because their taps ran dry, the break at the old Colonial Country Club wasted an estimated five million gallons of drinking water a day in a city that had none.

It is enough water to meet the daily needs of 50,000 people, or a third of the city’s residents who depend on the beleaguered water company.

No one knows for sure when the leak reached its current size. But just appointed water officials say the city discovered the broken main line in 2016 and left it gushing even as the water jutted a pool-sized crater into the earth, forcing city residents to endure one drinking water crisis after another.

Jackson’s water system has flirted with collapse for decades thanks to a combination of mismanagement, crumbling infrastructure and a series of fateful decisions that cost the utility money it didn’t have. In 2022, the Justice Department reached an agreement with the city requiring it to hire an outside manager to run the water department.

City residents have been forced to endure chronic boiling water reports that sweep the city like rolling blackouts. Many have learned to hoard bottled water against the next boiling point. Periodic periods of low water pressure can render taps unusable for thousands of people at once.

“The size of the leak is probably not unusual,” said Jordan Hillman, chief operating officer of JXN Water, the management company formed last year to lead Jackson’s efforts to stabilize its water service.The time it took to respond to it is very unusual. Most places would see this as an imminent threat because that is a ticking time bomb. As it eats away the ground from it, you’ll end up with catastrophic failure.

It is unclear why the municipality and water board have not repaired the leak sooner. Melissa Faith Payne, a city spokesperson, did not immediately respond to questions about the broken line on Wednesday. Tony Yarber, the former mayor of Jackson, and Kishia Powell, the former director of public works – both held senior positions in 2016 – were not available for comment on Wednesday.

The magnitude of the Colonial Country Club leak and the fact that it went unnoticed for so long highlights the enormous task ahead of city and state leaders in seeking a lasting solution. Led by a newly appointed water czar, Ted Henifin, a two-person team has been scouring the city for leaks or closed water valves, which can also affect water pressure. Often they have turned the valves back on themselves. Leaks generally require more time and resources to fix. One of the leaks spews water 30 feet into the air like a geyser, and the city is losing as much as a million gallons a day, Ms. Hillman said.

The broken pipe under the golf course is one of two main lines that move water from the OB Curtis Water Plant to smaller transmission lines that eventually connect to thousands of customers in the city. The 48-inch pipe is critical to South Jackson, an area of ​​the city most affected by outages and reports of boiling water.

Luke Guarisco, owner of the land where the golf course once operated, said he reported the leak several years ago when he noticed a broken pipe pushing water into the creek down the back of his property line. Guarisco he said lived out of state and was unaware of the giant hole that has since been created by the leak.

Leaks are common in water systems. In Jackson, however, the city’s leak problems are so extensive, the systems so outdated, the chronic staffing problems so overwhelming, that many leaks, seemingly of any size, have gone undetected or unresolved.

One of the aquatic plants serving Jackson was built in 1914, the other in the late 1980s. Water pipes under the city can be more than 100 years old and no one knows when or where a piece of pipe or equipment will fail. A combination of Jackson’s aging infrastructure and recent freezes may have exacerbated the current leaks.

The system shut down almost completely in March 2021 when residents were left without water for weeks. Another crisis erupted at OB Curtis in August 2022, and Mississippi declared a state of emergency for the state capital as water was once again deemed unsafe to drink.

Mr. Henifin, a retired manager of a Virginia wastewater company serving 1.8 million people, has spent 40 years in public service and worked on a “small part-time basis” with a national nonprofit to promote water equality in Jackson. In July, he was working from home in Virginia one day a week. By November, he was living part-time in Mississippi, appointed by the Justice Department to lead the federal takeover of the water system. He officially moved to the state in January.

In the months since, he has spoken with state and local leaders about creating a sustainable water system. But he’s looking for solutions in a state where black city leaders and white state leaders often spar over what is and isn’t in Jackson’s best interests.

Outside the country club on Tuesday afternoon, construction crews were preparing to begin repairs, which are expected to take a few weeks. Residents should see reduced water pressure for just a few hours and water should remain safe to drink, Ms Hillman said.

Curious neighbors could see piles of new pipes and hear the sound of trees being cut down.

Oscar Mckenzie saw crews working on the leak and assumed they were there to fix another water problem. A few years ago, a water pipe broke, he said, flooding the streets.

Like many Jackson residents, Mr. Mckenzie doesn’t drink the water that comes out of the tap. He worries about what it could do to his four children. When they shower, the water makes your back itch, he said.

A few houses away, Emmetta Jones passes the new barricades on her regular walk as she escorts her son to his school bus stop. Her water pressure is stable, she said, but brown water occasionally comes out of her faucet.

Like her neighbour, she does not drink the water. She hasn’t done that in years.