Jackson’s colleges and universities adjust to city’s ongoing water crisis

Millsaps College (file photo)
Millsaps College (file photo)
Published: Aug. 31, 2022 at 6:46 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Many college students in Jackson are finding themselves in a familiar situation.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many academic institutions switched to online learning to protect students and teachers from the virus.

Fast forward, some colleges in the capital city have again gone virtual, albeit temporarily, due not to a pandemic, but a citywide water crisis.

Belhaven University and Millsaps College have canceled in-person classes, while the Jackson State University football team was being temporarily moved to a hotel due to a lack of water on campus.

Otis Kenner is Millsaps’ student body president. He said his team has been working to connect with inside and outside resources to see how they can bring more drinking water to the campus.

He says friends at other colleges in Jackson are facing similar challenges. “Some are, like, completely without water. I know at JSU, they have some hydraulic-powered air conditioning units, [so] they don’t have air there. At Belhaven, they’re missing water... And then I know people who are off campus, who live off campus, and are like, not able to use anything in their house.”

“So, it’s very different, but it just shows... [there’s] a lot of people being affected by the same thing. So, we’re not alone.”

The city began experiencing water issues earlier this month. On Monday, Gov. Tate Reeves announced the state was stepping in to distribute water and help make repairs at O.B. Curtis after equipment there failed, causing water outages for tens of thousands of customers.

By Wednesday, an emergency rental pump had been installed at the plant, to replace the two pumps that failed, and crews were working to restore water pressure in the system, Gov. Tate Reeves said during a press conference that afternoon.

Weeks earlier, on August 12, JSU had to delay its move-in day due to a lack of water pressure and an ongoing boil water notice.

And this week, Coach Deion Sanders said his football program was operating in “crisis mode,” due to a continued lack of water.

“We don’t have air condition[ing], can’t use toilets, we have no water. Therefore, we don’t have ice, which pretty much places a burden on the program. Right now, we are operating in crisis mode,” Sanders stated on his Instagram and to Thee Pregame Show.

Millsaps canceled classes on Tuesday and began virtual learning Wednesday. “On Monday, we had to quickly shift and bring in mobile shower units and portable toilets for our students. Those are in place on campus,” said John Sewell, director of communications and community engagement. " What we’re seeing this morning is that the water pressure is starting to fluctuate on us a lot. Our normal water pressure on campus is around 40 PSI. We saw it drop on Monday down as low as 9 PSI. And then it came back up yesterday, and we were in a place where toilets could be flushed and showers could be used. This morning it dropped back down to 20 PSI.”

Millsaps has about 700 students, of which about 600 live on campus. Approximately 65 percent of the student body is from out-of-state.

In the spring, leaders with the downtown Jackson college announced they were planning to build two new water wells and a water tank on campus, largely due to problems with Jackson’s water system. The school was prompted to do so following the 2021 winter water crisis, which also impacted service there. Millsaps is still working to raise funds and obtain permits for that work. In the meantime, they’re also focused on ensuring students have water in the short term.

“We’re just we’re encouraging our students who are on campus to be flexible... Certainly sharing as much information as we can with the current situation and the pressure, the availability of mobile showers and toilets, encouraging them to follow the safety precautions as outlined by the state health department relating to using bottled water for personal hygiene,” he added. “It’s about being flexible and pivoting and supporting our students... our faculty and staff through an ever-changing, evolving situation.”

Belhaven initially canceled classes for Tuesday, with plans to resume them the following day. However, by Wednesday the school had gone to virtual, with plans to re-start in-class learning on September 6, according to Director of Communications David Sprayberry.

University President Dr. Roger Parrott echoed the concerns of many who were frustrated that the new year had already been interrupted just days into it. However, he did offer students hope of a brighter future thanks to the ongoing repair efforts.

“The good news is the city water plant is being repaired so that we’ll have clean and dependable water,” he wrote in a letter to students, faculty, and staff. “The bad news is that the repairs are going to cause the water flow to be inconsistent for a time.”

Students returned to the Belhaven campus on August 18 and 21, and classes began on August 22.

He also urged students to look to their faith and pray for those working to make the repairs.

“It is beyond our control to fix the water problem. But it is in our control to pray for those who are working to restore the water vital to our daily living,” Parrott wrote. “It is also in our control to ask for God’s strength to stay patient and to make the best out of these circumstances.”

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