Jackson State University wants to use federal pandemic relief funds to study overhauling the campus water and sewer system, an investment that officials say is necessary to maintain health and safety as the city’s water emergency has upended the start of the fall semester. 

But the Department of Finance and Administration – the state agency tasked with overseeing the $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated to Mississippi’s public university system – can’t say yet if it will fund JSU’s proposal.

Earlier this year, DFA invited all eight public universities to submit proposals that represent necessary investments in drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure. The department is now evaluating projects for compliance.  

“I think it’s safe to say that the goal is that everyone would get something, but that is certainly not a guarantee,” spokesperson Marcy Scoggins said. 

JSU says that a new water system is so crucial, it will seek other state and federal funding if DFA does not approve its proposal. 

“This is something that we’re gonna actively try to do,” President Thomas Hudson told students during a virtual town hall on Tuesday following a question about JSU’s water system. “We have been working with state legislators over the years to obtain the funding to do this type of project. Step one is to do a study … that process will begin very soon.” 

The study also appears to have support from the Institutions of Higher Learning. IHL thinks the study falls under the parameters for this federal spending and anticipates it will be complete by the summer of 2023, spokesperson Caron Blanton wrote in an email. 

“DFA will determine if ARPA funds can be used for this purpose once the study is complete,” Blanton wrote. 

In May, DFA sent a letter to IHL, outlining preliminary ARPA funding that each of the eight universities could receive for projects overseen by the Bureau of Buildings, Grounds and Real Property Management. The letter requested each university submit proposals that outline scope, an engineering firm preference, and any additional funding amounts the schools would provide. 

ARPA funds must be obligated by the end of 2024 and spent before the end of 2026. 

JSU’s preliminary allocation, per the letter, was about $2.2 million, but the four projects that the university sought funding for totaled $5 million. All four of these plans, JSU’s proposal says, “must be completed regardless of funding by ARPA.” 

JSU’s proposed projects and the amount of ARPA funding requested, in order of priority, are: 

  • A water and sewer line assessment ($500,000)
  • Making a plan to move the university’s potable water system off of the city’s ($250,000)
  • Repairing and enlarging storm water pipes ($2.3 million)
  • Constructing a water filtration system ($2 million) 

Installing a water filtration system will cost more than $2 million, but the proposal says that “without an adequate filtration system, JSU will continue to suffer from environmental and health alerts, boil water notices, and unexpected budgetary emergencies which impacts the ability to provide adequate maintenance.” 

These are the stakes of JSU not receiving ARPA funding for these projects, as the university sees it:“If this project does not proceed, JSU will continue to suffer from unexpected water and sewer line failures with no ability to develop data-driven solutions to effectively establish short-term and long-term solutions.” 

The proposal also says if the university is not able to procure funding for an isolated potable water system, the downside would be “required evacuation of over two thousand students as well as faculty and staff” as well as “loss of our fire protection systems.” 

The four sections of the proposal paint a high-level look at the state of the water system at JSU. 

The university pays for city water to support heating, cooling, potable and non-potable water on the historic campus, which is located in one of the first communities to be developed in Jackson, a neighborhood just a few minutes west of downtown. 

The water lines that feed JSU are among the oldest in the city – more than 100 years old. 

“Another aspect of these aged water lines would be the materials from which they were made,” the proposal says. “Some of these materials, which will include cast iron and lead, have become very brittle, fragile, and toxic.” 

During heavy storms, water erodes the grounds and intrudes into buildings due to the inadequate capacity of the campus’s storm water lines. 

“An improvement in this area will save us repair dollars for our structures,” the report says. 

The goal of the water and sewer line assessment would be to create “a comprehensive capital plan” so that JSU can understand what aspects of the water infrastructure on campus needs to be repaired, replaced or upgraded. The proposal says this will help the university address “any potential concerns” related to deteriorating water lines, unreliable control system, or lead in the campus’s drinking water. 

Portable showers remain on the campus of Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi on September 1, 2022.

The instability of the water lines on campus also contributes to water and sewer back-ups that cause odors and unsafe conditions, the proposal says, noting that a sewer line on Lynch Street recently collapsed. 

During the legislative session, IHL requested more than $17 million in funds for water-related projects on JSU’s campus, but the Legislature did not fulfill those requests. Many of those initial requests are similar to the ones JSU included in its proposal to DFA, according to a funding request IHL provided to Mississippi Today, but others were more immediate – and expensive, like $2 million for the installation of water meters. 

A bill proposed last session by Rep. Angela Cockerham, an independent from Magnolia,sought $8 million for JSU for costs associated with building a separate water system. It died in committee.

The city’s water issues have periods of low to no water pressure at JSU as far back as 2010. 

At the town hall on Tuesday, Hudson asked students to be patient as the university seeks state and federal funding for a new water system. 

“These things take time in order to happen,” he said. 

One student asked if the plan to build a new water system would affect tuition. Hudson replied that it’s “far too early to tell” the financial impact of a new water system or of the water crisis. 

Hudson added that while the university’s current water system “does bring costs,” because JSU pays the city for water, students won’t bear the cost of a new water system in the form of higher tuition.  

“There are resources that can help us undertake such a massive project,” he said. “We’re not looking to pass these costs onto our students.” 

The images in this story are from Deep Indigo Collective, a visual storytelling resource supporting news outlets reporting on the local impacts of environmental threats and the climate crisis. As a 501(c)(3) organization, Deep Indigo is proud to produce original visual journalism on behalf of our editorial partners across the United States.

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.