Sustainable solutions for Jackson, Mississippi
National attention is back on drinking water utilities, and once again for all the wrong reasons. As readers of this blog surely know by now, flooding triggered a catastrophic failure in Jackson, Mississippi’s water utility last week. The event led to state and federal disaster declarations, as much of the Magnolia State’s capital was without safe tap water—or without any tap water service at all.*
Jackson’s plight isn’t a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the city’s water troubles over the past 24 months. The city’s problems arise from systemic, structural issues like depopulation and racism, but also from organizational failures in its water and sewer utilities. The disaster is a legacy of racial hatred, but also the work of leaders who found it politically expedient to ignore the city’s water problems for decades instead of solving them.
Jackson’s water crisis is, at its core, a failure of governance.
The emergency relief flowing into Jackson is a badly-needed Band Aid; a lasting solution for Jackson’s water system must fix the broken politics along with the broken pipes.
Water systems don’t thrive or fail at random. Who decides what infrastructure investments we make and how to pay for them? And what motivates their decisions?
I don’t believe that there are many angels or devils governing water systems. What I see is a lot of people making rational decisions based on the incentives that they face. As I’ve observed before, water maintenance doesn’t give mayors and councilmembers good credit-claiming opportunities, so it’s easy to neglect these critical systems when times are tough—and times have been tough in Jackson for many years. Municipal fragmentation gives state politicians little incentive to worry about city infrastructure problems, especially when facing an ideologically polarized electorate. It’s tough for a governor from one party to make a case for spending on a community dominated by the other party. Meanwhile, regulators have few carrots, fewer sticks, and little motivation to compel city utilities to perform better.
Layer in a legacy of racism, and it’s easy—rational, even—for leaders at every level to ignore water infrastructure problems until disasters ensue, blame partisan opponents for failures, and then call for federal bailouts. When electoral dynamics turn water governance into a blame game, nothing succeeds like failure.
Rules of the game
If politics is a game, then institutions are the rules of that game. Governance institutions work well when they reward leaders who make responsible decisions and punish those who make bad decisions. With or without federal assistance, sustainable water and sewer systems—in Jackson and everywhere else—require institutions that give leaders the capacity and incentives to be good stewards of the public health and environmental quality.Apparently there are a few basic options for the future of water governance in Jackson under discussion at the moment, including:
- Creating a regional water authority to run the system.
- Putting the city water system in a temporary conservatorship run by the state Public Service Commission, with the goal of passing the system back to city leaders eventually.
- Creating a new state entity or commission to take full, permanent control of the water system.
- Privatizing Jackson’s water system or leasing it to a private company that would manage it moving forward.
Any of these institutional reforms might be a good fit for Jackson; it’s hard to say without knowing the details. But the criteria for evaluating alternatives boil down to capacity and incentives. For any reform plan, we should ask:
- Capacity: Does the institution provide stable, ongoing revenue dedicated to water, free from the electoral cycle? Does the institution allow for long-term recruitment and retention of excellent operators, analysts, and managers? Does the institution have sufficient water resources to provide for long-term needs?
- Incentives: Does the institution incentivize the system’s leaders and managers to invest proactively in infrastructure and operations, with a focus on sustainable excellence? Does the institution encourage responsibility or passing the buck? How does the institution reward good decisions? How does it punish bad decisions?
These are hard questions. With the right answers, several different institutional arrangements can put Jackson on the road to health and prosperity. Without good answers to these questions, any state or federal funding will only set up Jackson for future failure.
One more thing
With the right new institutions, this crisis can be a moment of redemption. Whatever shape those rules take, city and state must proceed together for them to be accepted as legitimate. **Neither Governor Reeves (age 48) nor Mayor Lumumba (39) is responsible for the legacies of hatred, fragmented institutions, and decades of underinvestment that brought us to this point. It's not fair that reversing those trends falls to Mississippi’s current leaders. Reeves and Lumumba may be the main players on the board, but they didn’t create the game. The rhetoric from Mayor and Governor is encouraging. Building institutions is difficult; let’s support them as they rewrite rules for a better game.
* The initial takes on the Jackson water crisis came in hot and fast. Some cast Jackson’s plight a climate catastrophe, others a result of inadequate federal funding. These are hardy perennials that pop up with any water disaster; they are not especially insightful or useful.
** Whatever its institutional form, one thing is certain: the cost of water in Jackson is going to increase. Those increases must come with improved service and responsive leadership—and cannot be perceived as imposed from outside.