Mississippi Crisis Highlights Climate Threat to Drinking Water Nationwide

Wildfires, hurricanes, and flash floods have become easy to recognize the effects of climate change. But now, global warming has also emerged as a growing threat to clean, safe drinking water. 

Aging infrastructure and underinvestment have left many cities’ water systems in tatters. Now, flooding and other climate shocks are pushing water systems to fail. That has become devastatingly clear in Mississippi this week. 

The deluge that knocked out a fraying water plant in Jackson, Mississippi, depriving more than 150,000 people of drinking water, offered the latest example of how quickly America’s aging treatment plants and decades-old pipes can crumple under the shocks of a warming world.

“There’s a crisis at hand,” said Mikhail V. Chester, a professor of civil, environmental, and sustainable engineering at Arizona State University. “The climate is simply changing too fast, relative to how quickly we could change our infrastructure.”

Earlier this summer, more than 25,000 people lost their drinking water, some for weeks, after deadly floods ripped through eastern Kentucky, breaking water lines as they obliterated entire neighborhoods.

In Texas, utility companies across the massive southwestern state spent the summer coping with hundreds of water-main breaks as record heat baked and shifted the drought-stricken soil surrounding pipes. The horrendous summer came after a bitter winter, which caused a massive storm that plunged Texas into freezing darkness in February 2021. Thousands of pipes froze and then burst.

Across the nation, from the Gulf Coast to the East Coast, supercharged hurricanes like Harvey and Ida now regularly debilitate water suppliers, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to boil their water or scramble for bottles days or weeks after the storms pass.

This is on top of the slower-moving threats such as rising sea levels that can contaminate water supplies with salt water, or a Western “mega-drought” that is withering reservoirs and parching the Colorado River that supplies water to some 40 million people.

President Joe Biden has made the chronic water issues in Jackson a center of his argument for the sprawling infrastructure bill that he signed into law in 2021. Money has just recently begun to flow into states and cities from that law. 

But Jackson’s share has been nowhere near what it needs to replace the system, valued at about $1 billion or more. 

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