On Friday, Sept. 9 – the 11th day of the water crisis in Jackson, Miss., and weeks into a citywide boil water notice – I went to brush my teeth.
I was at my apartment in Belhaven, one of the oldest and wealthiest neighborhoods in the majority-Black capital city. With the day off work, I had planned to drive to a suburb of Jackson to wash my clothes, thinking the laundromats in town were still affected by the crisis. Getting ready to leave, I turned on my bathroom sink faucet; for a second, the stream of water ran normally before it sputtered, lost pressure and turned a shockingly dark, coffee-colored brown.
My reaction was to turn off the faucet.
Earlier that week, I had seen a picture on Twitter of a bathtub, supposedly in Jackson, that was full of opaque, black water. Without more context, I had dismissed it as fake, but I wasn’t doubting anymore. I turned on my shower – it also sputtered before the water turned the same dark brown. I tried my sink again. Still brown. Then I flushed my toilet; it lurched away from the wall. I opened the lid to see chocolate-colored water slowly filling the bowl.
I took a video and posted it on Twitter with the caption, “My water just now in Jackson, MS.”
Within minutes, I was getting hundreds of retweets. That turned into dozens of direct messages, emails and phone calls from reporters around the world requesting to play the video on TV that night, and literally thousands of replies all asking the same question: What was in my water, and why was it that brown?
I had the same questions. Like all of my coworkers at Mississippi Today, I had been covering the crisis since it began on Aug. 29, but I wasn’t reporting on the condition of the water system or treatment plants.
Still, I thought I’d be well-suited to get the answers as a journalist. But more than two months later, I still don’t know what, exactly, was in my water, or why it turned brown. I’ve talked with experts in water quality and city officials – they gave different answers. The experts say that discolored water is a natural phenomenon in aging water systems, though the pipes in my building could’ve contributed. City officials are adamant my brown water was “an isolated incident,” but we obtained records showing people across the city had experienced similar brown water during the height of the crisis.
The city also said they were going to test my water, but after weeks of back and forth with me, they admitted they never did.
But the first call I made that day was to my landlord’s front office. I wanted to know if other properties in Belhaven were affected or if my unit, a 1940s quadruplex, was the only one. Though the pipes in Belhaven are decades old, much of the neighborhood is downhill and nearby J.H. Fewell, the city’s secondary water plant – as a result, the homes here are often better able to weather water-related crises than those in other parts of the city.
The office manager answered the phone. Multiple properties were affected, she said. The water in Nejam Properties’ office in Belhaven Heights, a sister neighborhood on the hill across Fortification Street, was the color of “weak coffee.”
“That’s all to do with the city of Jackson and the boil water notice and stuff like that,” she said in a way that seemed intended to be reassuring.
Even before Gov. Tate Reeves declared the water emergency in a late-night press conference on Aug. 29, there was widespread confusion in Jackson about whether the water was safe to drink. Despite months of on-again, off-again boil water notices, many people, including myself, had been using the water normally. The mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, had repeatedly questioned if the most recent boil water notice, which had been imposed by the state in July, was necessary.
This lack of clarity from both the city and the state continued throughout the crisis, making it hard for many Jacksonians to know what to trust. Reeves’ initial press conference did not include Lumumba or anyone from the city – and the very next day, Lumumba disputed several of Reeves’ comments, including an alarming statement that raw flood water had entered the O.B. Curtis treatment plant and was flowing into people’s homes.
In my apartment, the first clue as to what happened came a few hours after I posted the video. That afternoon, I learned my neighbor directly beneath me on the north side of the building had been getting brown water in his kitchen sink for a week if he used hot water. But on the south side, my neighbors still had clear water, albeit with low-pressure. An expert later told me this could indicate an issue with the pipes inside my section of the building – something my landlord, not the city, would be responsible for.
My water cleared up the day after I posted the video on Twitter, but it continued to gain views. By Monday, it had been watched more than 10 million times. That afternoon, I looked through my Twitter DMs.
One message stood out. It was a request from the City of Jackson’s account. They asked for my address so they could come test the water.
I could send it, I replied, but I wanted to know why they were asking.
“… If the water is that brown… we want to get the address to Public works and the health department to find the reason why,” they responded.
“Gotcha!” I wrote back before sending my address. Since I work from home, I said the city could come by any time.
“Ok…,” they wrote. “I’m going to give that address to our public works person… and hopefully they’ll be able to determine what the heck is going on.”
After some back and forth, the city’s Twitter account asked if my water was still brown.
“Can we get a sample of it? (I’m asking per our public works director)”
The next morning, I ran into three city contractors on the sidewalk outside my apartment. They weren’t there to test my water but to install new meters.
I showed them the video. Gesturing down at the water meter, one of the contractors remarked that their work wouldn’t prevent the discolored water from happening again.
Jackson, he said, needs to re-pipe the whole city.
The exchange prompted me to check in with the city’s Twitter account.
“When do you think y’all will send someone over?” I asked at 9:42 a.m.
Six hours later, the city replied, “Hey Hey!!!! I think they went out there this morning…”
That was my last exchange with the city’s Twitter account, but I would learn – when I reached out to the city a month later – that Public Works never tested my water.
-- Article credit to Molly Minta of Mississippi Today --