The residents of Jackson, Miss., have drinkable water — for now.
But those in the predominantly Black city of more than 150,000 know that their public works crisis isn’t over. Long before issues in Mississippi’s capital made national news with images of residents snatching up cases of bottled water, people in Jackson weren’t only dealing with brown fluid that smelled like sewage pouring from their faucets, if they had any water at all.
They’ve also had to contend with a Republican-controlled state Legislature unwilling to do enough about it. At an economic development event, Tate Reeves, Mississippi’s governor, even made a joke that some interpreted as, at best, deeply insensitive.
“I’ve got to tell you, it’s a great day to be in Hattiesburg,” he told his audience. “It’s also, as always, a great day to not be in Jackson.”
Residents in that city aren’t laughing. Four of them have filed a class action lawsuit accusing current and former Jackson officials of “neglect, mismanagement, and maintenance failures” that caused the seven-week shutdown of the city’s water system. The 99-page complaint also highlights decades of dereliction that left the water supply “not fit for human consumption due to the high levels of lead and other contaminants.”
The plaintiffs don’t just want the pipes and water treatment plant repaired. They’re requesting cancellation of water bills that they were expected to pay when there was no water; medical testing of lead levels in potentially exposed residents; and regular testing of the city’s water.
And they are demanding federal oversight in allocated funds and assurances that federal standards for water quality are upheld.
The crisis casts a spotlight yet again on the inequitable way water infrastructure is funded in America — or not. Whether in Mississippi or Massachusetts, towns and cities are largely expected to fund and manage their own water systems, despite the vast difference in resources available to them. Federal aid is available but it’s routed through state houses, some of which are in no hurry to help urban areas.
While Mississippi is scheduled to receive about $429 million from President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law to fix its water systems, that hardly seems enough to reverse decades of disrepair and neglect. And there’s certainly no guarantee that those funds will benefit areas like Jackson that face the most dire need.
It’s impossible to talk about what’s happening in Jackson without mentioning the racial malfeasance that’s as much a part of Mississippi as magnolia trees. That these issues plague a majority-Black city in the state with the nation’s largest percentage of Black people can’t be written off as a coincidence.
And what’s happening in Mississippi isn’t staying in the beleaguered Southern state. Other areas with largely Black populations are routinely subjected to boil-water orders. Earlier this month about 1,500 homes in West Baltimore received such an order after E. coli bacteria was detected in the water supply. That order has since been lifted.
In Benton Harbor, Mich., a majority-Black city about 180 miles west of Detroit, the water is so contaminated by corroded lead pipes that some consider its crisis to be even worse than the one that made Flint, Mich., a tragic emblem of public-works incompetence about a decade ago.
While Flint’s water is now considered clean after millions were spent replacing lead pipes with copper ones, some residents remain reticent to drink it. Like the deteriorating pipes that poisoned children, trust in city and state government has also eroded. When elected officials ignore nagging problems, when they make glib comments such as advising residents to take showers with their mouths closed as officials did in Jackson, the public has no reason to expect that their concerns will be sufficiently heard or addressed.
For decades, Jackson’s public works deficiencies have deprived its residents of a basic human right — access to clean water. Meanwhile, the state of Mississippi’s neglect of its own capital city has been as intentional as it is disgraceful. Federal funding is crucial, but throwing money at the problem won’t work if the same state officials who’ve prolonged it are allowed to decide where that money will land.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.