EPA says $74.9M in water infrastructure funding headed to MS in 2022. What will Jackson get?

Jackson will have the chance to apply for a portion of $74.9 million in federal water and sewer infrastructure funds the Environmental Protection Agency is making available to Mississippi in 2022 as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

In a letter to all 50 governors, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said low-income communities and communities of color should be given priority to the funds made available to each state through the law.

“From Jackson to Houston, New Orleans to St. James Parrish, environmental-justice communities are concerned that they will be shut out of accessing water infrastructure funding from the (state revolving funds),” he said. “States and the EPA can and must do better with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

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President Joe Biden's administration detailed the broader plan for drinking water infrastructure improvements in a Thursday morning news release.

The $74.9 million Mississippi is receiving in 2022 will be placed in the state’s drinking water and clean water revolving funds, and is the first wave of funding to come over the next five years. The money will be distributed primarily through grants and low-interest loans.

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality and Mississippi State Department of Health will oversee how the revolving fund loans and grants are disbursed in the state, but the federal government is still developing guidelines on how those funds should be distributed.

Residents wary as city officials reevaluate service lines

The EPA is splitting the money into different categories: money for general water and sewer repairs, money for replacing lead water lines and money to remove cancer-causing chemicals from drinking water and wastewater.

City leaders have said the city has no lead service lines in operation, but many of the water lines throughout the city have lead connectors that have leached into the water as it travels through the system. Two-thirds of water samples taken in the city since 2015 have contained at least a trace amount of lead, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health.

However, the city, at the request of the EPA, is conducting another evaluation of the city’s water lines to make sure there are no lead service lines. The money can be used to replace the lead pipe joints, according to the Biden administration’s plan.

One Jackson resident, Eric Knapp, said the EPA detailing how the money is to be spent is a good start for the city of Jackson, but it doesn’t change his opinion of perceived inaction by city leadership when it comes to fixing the drinking water.

Knapp, a lifelong west Jackson homeowner, previously told the Clarion Ledger he had not drank a glass of Jackson tap water in decades because he didn’t trust what was in it.

“I’m certain there are other areas and other entities that have dire issues as well,” he said. “But for us to have been in this predicament for as long as we have and for the residents not even able to drink the water, I think this is a viable opportunity to make good on promises.”

'It is much needed support'

Until the fund disbursement guidelines are developed, Jackson leaders can’t say for certain how much money the city plans to apply for and for what specific projects.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba on Monday cautioned the city’s residents not to get too optimistic about the EPA funds headed to Mississippi.

“I want to temper expectations amongst our residents that the money that we will receive out of this infrastructure package is not sufficient in order to repair all of the challenges, all of the issues we face with our aged infrastructure,” Lumumba said. “But it is much needed support.”

Jackson’s leaders have repeatedly said it will cost more than $2 billion to completely fix the city’s water and sewer systems, and that the work will take over a decade to complete once the money materializes.

To help refill the city's long depleted water revenue coffers, the Jackson City Council passed a 20% water and sewer rate increase Tuesday, the first in over a decade. Even with the increase, Lumumba said previously the water utility will operate in the red for several months, if not years.

Jackson is not alone in its needs for water and sewer system help. Hundreds of small rural and municipal water systems throughout Mississippi have significant needs and deficiencies, and the money will need to flow their way also.

As a whole, the money Congress approved specifically for infrastructure, about $50 billion, will not be enough to fix the nation’s problems, said Megan Mullin, an associate professor of environmental politics at Duke University.

“It’s nowhere near enough to meet needs,” she said. “The places where the needs are most pronounced aren’t necessarily ready to spend a bunch of money that would arrive.”

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Jackson could soon have access to more federal money for water system