Skip to Content
MarketWatch

Yes, it could happen to you. Like the water crisis in Jackson, Miss., other U.S. cities are vulnerable to climate-change disaster

By Rachel Koning Beals

Jackson is emblematic of a swelling water infrastructure crisis that many U.S. cities, suburbs and rural areas must prepare for, experts told MarketWatch

Most Americans easily flip on the water tap to wash their hands or quench their thirst. If they pay their monthly bill, which ranks comfortably low when compared to much of the world, vital water simply flows.

Yet in Jackson, Miss., this week, and for the second time in a year, a weather-related disaster has shut off the water taps for much of its population of 150,000, before some improvement was reported Thursday.

Jackson is emblematic of a swelling water infrastructure crisis that many U.S. cities, suburbs and rural areas must prepare for, experts told MarketWatch.

That's especially true as climate change, owed to global warming, increases and intensifies the frequency and severity of floods, droughts, and hot and cold extremes that further threaten underinvested infrastructure. Even cities with deep pockets can't ignore the costly devastation that could come with unchecked climate change, observers say.

"In the past, it might have made sense to consider a flood a rare and random event -- communities could just build back. But the statistical distribution of weather events and natural disasters is shifting," says Richard Rood, a professor of climate, space sciences and engineering in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, and a participant in the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessment. "What might have been a 1-in-500-year event may become a 1-in-100-year event, on the way to becoming a 1-in-50-year event."

Could water scarcity happen to you?

For Americans, water shortages may seem like an issue the developed world doesn't have to think about. Not true. Last year's Hurricane Ida, for instance, put suburban Philadelphia's water treatment facilities at risk.

And now, "Jackson is a highly visible recent example, but it's emblematic of a much broader pattern of municipal water infrastructure deterioration in the United States," said Travis Korte, associate director of sustainability research and data, at investment firm Ethic.

Federal funding for water infrastructure has been in decline since the 1970s, and while state and local funding has largely taken over, even that has decreased since 2010, Korte stressed.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2018 that $472.6 billion in investments would be needed over the next 20 years to maintain and improve the nation's drinking water infrastructure alone, not even counting investments needed for wastewater.

The federal government in its infrastructure-improvement law last year set aside what is seen as the largest investment ever in restoring the U.S. water system, at $50 billion. But for many observers it is catch-up money that may fund overdue repairs, yet may not still go far enough to modernize and reinvent how Americans source and access water.

At times, would-be fixes have been shouldered by both the public and private sectors. And figuring out who is most responsible for water and sewer upgrades -- cities, states or Washington, D.C. -- adds to the burden on officials and homeowners.

Jackson, as one example, could only brace for the worst.

"I have said on multiple occasions that it's not a matter of if our system would fail, but a matter of when our system would fail," Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said during a news conference this week.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has raised serious concerns about the nation's drinking water infrastructure, giving it a C-minus on its latest, closely followed, report card. Citing aging and underfunding, the group said there is a water main break every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water lost each day in the U.S. That's enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools.

U.S. storm water infrastructure received an even lower mark, with the engineer group warning that few systems could afford the high cost of retrofits to address flooding linked to climate change.

Even with budget constraints, government officials may no longer be able to simply respond to the emergencies. Rather, they must do more to head off damage. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and President Joe Biden declared an emergency for the Jackson area after heavy rains overwhelmed the Pearl River and risked flooding the state's capital. But flooding only worsened the strain on an already troubled water-treatment plant and created a drinking-water crisis.

The plant had operated on backup pumps after its main pumps were damaged last month, the Wall Street Journal reported A boil order has been in place for weeks simply based on poor quality. Now, supplies of bottled water risk running out.

Restaurant owner Derek Emerson told The Associated Press that water problems "are making it impossible for us to do business in Jackson." Emerson owns the upscale Walker's Drive-In, and he said they have been spending $300 a day for ice and bottled water in the past month.

Jackson isn't the only locale increasingly relying on aging plants and pipes and yet wondering if severe weather will automatically mean assured catastrophe. Floods this summer have upended life in and around Dallas, California's Death Valley, St. Louis, Yellowstone National Park and Appalachia -- Kentucky in particular -- leaving cities and rural areas dotted across the U.S. questioning their own safety and the function of basic services in a warming climate. Flooded water can contaminate safe water, and when drought sharply lowers water reservoirs, not only are supplies limited, but remaining low water can invite more bacteria or other risks.

As Jackson struggles, more Americans are wondering if water troubles could hit their own communities: Google (GOOGL) data reveals that Americans are searching for the term "water scarcity" 30% more in 2022 than in 2021.

The crisis in Jackson also highlights that it's not just hot or cold, floods or droughts that are singularly worrisome. Each poses its own risks. Some Jackson residents went weeks without running water after winter storms last year impacted municipal facilities.

Injustice for the 'plumbing poor'?

Jackson's situation is an important climate-change test for demographic reasons. A majority Black city, its crisis swings attention to how environmental strains disproportionately impact the health, safety and monetary costs to people of color in the U.S. A 2019 study in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers found that Black, Latino, Native American and Alaska Native households are disproportionately likely to be "plumbing poor" with considerably less upgraded pipes or even water access than white households.

Like many cities, Jackson, faces water-system problems it can't afford to fix. Its tax base has eroded the past few decades as the population decreased -- the result of mostly white flight to suburbs that began after public schools integrated in 1970. The city's population is now more than 80% Black, with about 25% of its residents living in poverty, the Associated Press reports.

"Underserved communities are taking the brunt of the effects of climate change. We've seen widespread suffering from flooding, heat, cold, and fires. Add-on effects from a vulnerable water system or other infrastructure are readily apparent too. Pile on that, the underserved areas have low local revenue from which to draw and often stressed management resources," said Brian Svendahl, senior portfolio manager, U.S. Fixed Income at RBC GAM, adding that Mississippi's drinking water state revolving fund is a relatively small $11 billion, looks complicated, and the need no doubt exceeds this number.

Svendahl agreed that lack of cohesiveness in financing and boosting infrastructure hurts those who need it most.

"The best market solutions are where risk is shared, funding is broad and solutions are uniform, much like the U.S. mortgage market, the world's biggest and best functioning housing market," he said. "Imagine if each state ran the mortgage market, and each local community had to fight for funding -- that's very much what we have in how infrastructure is financed with the most vulnerable boxed out altogether."

For sure, some observers are quick to tie Jackson to the cost-cutting water scandal and legal fallout that hobbled Flint, Mich., some eight years ago. Residents there have received some restitution but stress that a settlement isn't "justice."

Last year's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law set aside more than $50 billion to the Environmental Protection Agency to improve our nation's drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure -- the single largest investment in water that the federal government has ever made. Mississippi, for one, is receiving $75 million to address water problems.

But for some, the catch-up spending feels late, and may still fall short. What's more, the relatively cheap access to water may be vulnerable.

An average U.S. family of four pays about $72.93 for water every month as of 2019, if each person used about 100 gallons for drinking, washing and bathroom use per day. The price index of water and sewage maintenance has increased in recent years as infrastructure continues to age across the U.S., Commerce Department and EPA data show. By one measure, U.S. residential-water prices have grown an average of 5.5% per year since 2012 -- faster than broader inflation until just recently. (Read more about EPA water data here.)

(MORE TO FOLLOW) Dow Jones Newswires

09-10-22 1051ET

Copyright (c) 2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.