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A Jackson, Mississippi suburb decided to create its own water system

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

People in Mississippi are trying to fix their failing water infrastructure. And some in the Jackson suburb of Byram are doing it on their own. But as Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom reports, solving the nation's water problems isn't about independence but cooperation.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Byram, Miss., has a vigilante plumber. And his name is Richard White, who also happens to be the town mayor.

RICHARD WHITE: This is the deal right here. This is where I came the other night. This is 110. And just take a look at it, OK?

BISAHA: White had gotten worried this new brick house had a leak in the yard going on for five months now. So he came here at 8 p.m. with his slip-joint pliers and fixed it himself.

WHITE: And somewhere along the line, I went down on my knees.

BISAHA: Covered in a lot of mud?

WHITE: I knew is going to be nasty, but this is just not acceptable.

BISAHA: Now, White says it's actually illegal for him to touch the water pipes laid here and throughout his small town just southwest of Jackson. The city of Jackson owns the pipes. And they're the ones responsible for fixing the problems. But Jackson says its water system is underfunded. And it has problems maintaining infrastructure just in its own city limits, let alone in the suburb of Byram. So White wants Byram to break off and provide its own water.

WHITE: We're going to have four wells and one tank.

BISAHA: How much would that cost?

WHITE: About 26 million.

BISAHA: Pretty small town - 26 million sounds like a lot of money.

WHITE: It is. But right now, there's a lot of money out there that you can use for long-range plans. And that's what we plan to do right now.

BISAHA: Mississippi should receive more than $400 million for water infrastructure improvements from the federal infrastructure bill, according to the White House. But White's plan to splinter off from Jackson is actually the opposite of the national trend. Instead of breaking up, water utilities in this country have been slowly merging together. Emily Simonson is with the US Water Alliance, which advocates for sustainable water policies. She says mergers make sense.

EMILY SIMONSON: We can think of it like a basic math problem.

BISAHA: Basically, the fewer people getting their water from the same system, the more each person has to pay for that water. And the United States has a lot of tiny and, therefore, expensive water systems.

SIMONSON: Just think about that for a second. We have more than 50,000 drinking water systems across the United States. Some of those serve fewer than 10,000 people.

BISAHA: The math also works the other way. The more customers, the cheaper it is for everyone. And that sounds all well and good. But if you're one of the other Jackson suburbs that already has its own perfectly reliable water system, unlike Byram, why join up with Jackson's failing one?

ANDRE PERRY: As Jackson goes, so does the rest of the state.

BISAHA: Andre Perry is a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute. He says, if Jackson's losing big employers or can't recruit new ones because of issues like water, then the Jackson metro is going to be hurting, too.

PERRY: This sort of splintering, it certainly saves those particular institutions. But it's horrible for regional economic growth.

WHITE: Yes. But that's not my problem. My problem is Byram, Miss.

BISAHA: Byram Mayor Richard White doesn't think it's his town's job to pay for Jackson's maintenance backlog.

WHITE: The bottom line here is they've had their opportunities. We have water out in our city almost monthly.

BISAHA: While there is federal money out there Byram might be able to tap into to create its own water system, that money won't last forever, which would eventually leave Byram with the expensive task of running a city water system on its own.

For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Byram.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNIOR KIMBROUGH'S "MOST THINGS HAVEN'T WORKED OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephan Bisaha is a former NPR Kroc Fellow. Along with producing Weekend Edition, Stephan has reported on national stories for Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as other NPR programs. He provided data analysis for an investigation into the Department of Veteran Affairs and reported on topics ranging from Emojis to mattresses.
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