In his four decades as mayor of Glendora, a Mississippi Delta town surrounded by creeks, fields and not much else, Johnnie B Thomas has gotten used to bad news.
He’s seen the town’s main drag grow desolate as its few businesses closed down, and the sole clinic follow suit. He’s watched storms drop trees on to houses – including his own, mortally wounding his wife. He pleaded for help as the seemingly unstoppable force that was Covid infected and killed his neighbors, a younger brother among them.
And time and time again, he’s turned on the taps at home to find that the water was brown and silty, or didn’t flow at all.
“Any time there’s storms, pretty much, our lights around here would go out,” Thomas said. “When we have bad weather, we can count on our water system breaking down.” If the power goes off when he’s awake, Thomas will scramble to switch on a generator so the town’s water pressure doesn’t slow to a trickle. If he’s not, the mayor or one of the city’s four employees will have to go door-to-door, warning Glendora’s population of 154 to avoid drinking the water without boiling it first.
Two hours south, the nearly 150,000 residents of Mississippi’s largest city and capital Jackson were given a similar warning in late July, when tests found its water wasn’t safe to drink. A month later, the taps stopped running entirely – but unlike in Glendora, the response was immediate. A state of emergency was declared and the national guard and volunteer groups deployed to hand out water to residents. By the middle of last month, water pressure had been restored and the boil water notice lifted.
A network of leaky pipes fed by a treatment plant that has repeatedly broken down, Jackson’s water system is far from fixed, and it’s not clear who will pay to repair it for good. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the country, and in Jackson, a quarter of residents live below the poverty line in neighborhoods where burned-out husks of houses and businesses are a common sight and some potholes have grown so deep traffic cones are stuffed in them to ward off drivers.
Jackson’s Democratic mayor Chokwe, Antar Lumumba, estimates a cost of $1bn to solve its water issues, yet the city hasn’t had much luck getting help from the GOP-led state government, and only a tepid response from its majority Republican congressional delegation.
As midterm elections loom in November, the Biden administration has touted its $1.2tn infrastructure agenda as a way of creating jobs and fixing exactly the sorts of problems that bedevil places like Glendora and Jackson. Yet Republicans – even as they ask for votes at the coming polls – have largely stood in opposition to those measures, despite the fact it is often their own constituents that could benefit.
In few places are the stark contrasts between dire need and Republican intransigence as visible as Mississippi, one of the reddest states in the US.
During his time as state treasurer, Tate Reeves, now the Republican governor, declined to authorize a $6m low-interest bond to pay for water repairs in Jackson after it was beset by a streak of pipe breaks, the Jackson Free Press reported.
Other efforts to finance the city’s infrastructure needs have died in the Republican-controlled legislature, even though parts of the city lost water pressure for weeks last year. Lawmakers did, however, approve the state’s largest-ever tax cut this year, which will mostly benefit Mississippi’s highest earners.
Reeves and Lumumba made cordial appearances together during Jackson’s most-recent water outage, but the governor changed his tone a day after the boil water notice was lifted, saying it was, “as always, a great day to not be in Jackson. I feel like I should take off my emergency management director hat and leave it in the car, and take off my public works director hat and leave it in the car.”
Reeves’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
In Washington, the Democratic-led Congress has spent big on infrastructure, with the approval of a massive plan to fund renovations to roads, bridges, drinking water systems and other projects nationwide last year. But only one of Mississippi’s Republican senators, Roger Wicker, and the lone Democrat in its House delegation, Bennie Thompson, voted for the bill.
Wicker and the state’s other Republican in the Senate, Cindy Hyde-Smith, last month voted for a short-term federal funding measure that allocated $20m specifically for Jackson’s water needs. But their three fellow Republican members in the House said no to that bill, too, including Michael Guest, whose district includes part of Jackson but said the funds “did not address the situation on a long-term basis”.
And while Guest has asked for money to repair a Jackson water treatment plant as part of this year’s congressional appropriation’s process, he has not included two other projects the city asked him to seek funding for, one of which would have replaced pumps at the treatment plant blamed for this summer’s water outage.
Guest’s communications director, Rob Pillow, said lawmakers could only make 15 requests in total, “and the congressman chose to include the top-priority water infrastructure request from the city of Jackson out of the dozens of submissions received from cities and stakeholders across the district”.
The NAACP civil rights group sees another motivation for Jackson’s problems: racial discrimination. Last month, it filed a formal complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency alleging that Mississippi was diverting money meant for the upkeep of Jackson’s drinking water systems to white communities.
While Jackson is majority Black, many of its suburbs adjacent to the city limits – where the water was running and clean during the summer weeks when Jackson’s was not – are predominantly white. So is the state government: an African American has not been elected to a statewide office in Mississippi since the late 19th century.
Among the NAACP’s claims was that Jackson had only three times in the past 25 years received a drinking water state revolving loan, one of Mississippi’s main ways of paying for infrastructure upgrades. A utility serving mostly white rural areas of an adjoining county had been awarded the funds nine times over the same period, the NAACP said.
Stephanie Showalter-Otts, director of the University of Mississippi’s National Sea Grant Law Center, said there is much more money available for the drinking water state revolving loans than is being given out, even though there is probably no shortage of uses for it.
A large, rural state with a spread-out population, Mississippi has more than a thousand water systems, and Showalter-Otts said some serve only a few hundred people and struggle to meet their needs. Hundreds of boil water notices were issued in the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years, the American Society of Civil Engineers found, and in the Mississippi Delta, Showalter-Otts said a study by her team found detectable levels of lead in more than two-thirds of water samples taken from homes.
The state’s revolving loan fund has ended recent fiscal years with tens of millions of dollars left over, and Showalter-Otts wonders if those funds don’t represent missed opportunities for local governments dealing with spotty water systems.
“The federal government is providing resources to the state to distribute to address drinking water issues in the state and that money is left on the table every year,” she said.
Showalter-Otts cautioned that some municipalities may not be able to afford to repay a loan, or have the manpower to apply for one successfully. “There’s not a lot of information out there about how to apply, or guides for how to apply. Mississippi just doesn’t have those kind of resources. It feels like it’s not a priority of the state to help communities apply for those funds.”
Glendora’s Mayor Thomas can sympathize. The town’s water problems have gone on for years, with little attention or success in getting help.
The mayor’s solution is to build a water tower, like so many rural communities in Mississippi have done. But Thomas, in office since 1982 in a town where census data estimates more than 91% of the population lives in poverty, has never been successful in winning a grant from the state for its construction, which he estimates would cost $600,000 – nor can the town afford to borrow from the revolving loan fund.
As for its residents, many say they have had too many encounters with dry taps or brown water that stains their bath tubs and clogs water filters, and rely on bottled water exclusively, even though nearest store selling it is about an hour’s round-trip drive.
“Don’t nobody drink this water. People buy water,” William Willingham, 64 and unemployed, said as he sat outside one of many shuttered businesses on Glendora’s commercial strip.
Located just off a rural highway, the lonely drag begins with a sign commemorating the killing of African-American fuel station attendant Clinton Melton, and ends with a museum dedicated to the lynching of Emmett Till, which residents say partially took place in the town.
Beyond just keeping the taps running for days when the power goes out, a tower could help lower insurance rates for the municipality, and also alleviate the constant financial burden buying bottled water places on Glendora’s residents.
Thomas’s vision for Glendora extends beyond its water system. In 2005, he turned the site of a former cotton gin into the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, which is dedicated to the town’s place in the teenager’s murder by two white men who thought he had flirted with one of their wives. Thomas believes a disused bridge on the edge of Glendora was where Till’s body was tossed into a tributary of the Tallahatchie river – and the cotton gin fan found tied around his neck came from the building where the museum now sits.
His father, Henry Lee Loggins, was even named as being made to accompany Till’s killers, but denied involvement until his death in 2009.
There’s a long-running campaign to convince the federal government to create a national park where Till was killed. Thomas hopes Glendora would act as a gateway for that park, the visitors it brings, and the tour guides it would employ.
“That’s what I see through the museum and the community,” Thomas said. “There’s several things to happen here, as a result of a museum, could happen, to create a sustainable community.”