Our Nation’s Water Systems Are Failing and Black Communities Are Bearing the Brunt

By Coty Montag

Former Senior Counsel and Thurgood Marshall Institute Researcher

For weeks in March 2021, residents of Jackson, Mississippi, were forced to obtain water from distribution sites to flush their toilets, bathe, and drink. In mid-February 2021 a winter storm brought freezing temperatures to the city. The bitter cold hampered the operation of water treatment plants, causing pressure to plummet and making the water unsafe to drink. By the second week of March, while water pressure had returned to some parts of the city, Jackson was still operating under a boil water notice amid fears that the water may contain disease-causing organisms. In September 2022, Jackson residents were once again left without access to water after the main water treatment plant began failing weeks earlier.  The city was once again placed under a boil-water advisory in mid-July 2022. This water crisis is not new. Jackson residents have been forced to contend with a failing water system for decades.

This emergency has not been felt equally. While Jackson’s population is over 80 percent Black, reports indicate that predominantly white areas of the city have been “relatively unscathed” by the water issues. This crisis echoes the plight of thousands of Detroit residents who have had to live without water in their homes for years due to the city’s aggressive water shutoff policy. Between 2014 and 2019, more than 141,000 households in Detroit had their water service disconnected for non-payment. While water has been restored during the COVID-19 pandemic, many families in Detroit have lived for years without water service in their homes. Others have been trapped in a cycle of water insecurity with repeated disconnections and reconnections because of their inability to pay the city’s high rates for service and the lack of a meaningful water affordability program for low-income residents. Like the residents of Jackson, these Detroiters have had to rely on bottled water donations for bathing, drinking, and sanitation. And, similar to Jackson, Black families have been disproportionately affected by Detroit. 

These issues are not new, nor are they limited to Jackson and Detroit. As detailed in a report issued by the LDF’s Thurgood Marshall InstituteWater/Color: A Study of Race and the Water Affordability Crisis in Americas Cities, discrimination in municipal water systems is rooted in our nation’s history. For as long as our cities have been rigidly segregated by race, local officials have found ways to deprive communities of color from access to essential water services. Municipal discrimination in the provision of water services runs deep.

A man drinking at a water cooler in Oklahoma City in 1969. (Photo by Russell Lee/MPI/Getty Images)
Benjamin Williams, Ben Mitchell, and Derrick Kelly help to give out packages of bottled water at a water distribution site in the parking lot of Forest Hill High School in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

LDF has a long history of combating this particularly insidious form of discrimination. In 1967, we filed Hawkins v. Town of Shaw, the first-ever lawsuit challenging a municipalitys discriminatory provision of water and services under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. More recently, LDF has engaged in advocacy to urge local officials to end water shutoffs and refrain from placing liens on homes due to unpaid water debt during water contamination crises. And we are currently litigating cases in Cleveland and Detroit to address the discriminatory impact of water liens and shutoffs that have a disparate impact on Black families and communities.

There is a clear link between racial discrimination and water affordability, with aging infrastructure at the heart of rising water costs. Jacksons recent crisis was caused in large part by its failing, century-old water infrastructure. But this issue is not limited to Mississippi. Federal funding for water infrastructure peaked in the 1970s and has declined some 77 percent since. State funding for water has also greatly decreased over time. As a result, municipal water systems across the country have looked to customers to bridge the gap through higher rates and aggressive shutoff and lien policies. Indeed, in early March, when thousands of Jackson residents were without water, Mississippi Governor Tate Reed declared that the city should look to collecting funds from customers first, rather than resorting to other forms of aid.

Instead of municipalities hiking up customers’ rates to provide basic necessities, our government must resume federal funding for our systems. In March, Reps. Brenda Lawrence and Ro Khanna, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, introduced the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act (WATER Act) of 2021, which would provide $35 billion a year in drinking water and wastewater improvements and prioritize disadvantaged communities. But these funds, while critically important, are not enough: they will simply bridge the gap in ensuring our water meets safety requirements, but close to another trillion dollars is needed to update our nations water infrastructure.

From brutal winter storms in Mississippi and Texas to wildfires in California, it is clear that climate change and ensuing extreme weather events will only place further strain on our already imperiled water systems. As we reflect on how to protect and secure our natural resources, we must remember that this too is an urgent issue of racial justice, as Black Americans and communities of color across the country bear the brunt of our failing infrastructure. The time to act is now.

Published: March 22, 2021; Updated September 13, 2022