My coffee-colored tap water went viral. I still don’t know what was in it.
On Friday, Sept. 9 – the 11th day of the water crisis in Jackson, Miss., and weeks into a citywide boil water notice – I went to brush my teeth.
I was at my apartment in Belhaven, one of the oldest and wealthiest neighborhoods in the majority-Black capital city. With the day off work, I had planned to drive to a suburb of Jackson to wash my clothes, thinking the laundromats in town were still affected by the crisis. Getting ready to leave, I turned on my bathroom sink faucet; for a second, the stream of water ran normally before it sputtered, lost pressure and turned a shockingly dark, coffee-colored brown.
My reaction was to turn off the faucet.
Earlier that week, I had seen a picture on Twitter of a bathtub, supposedly in Jackson, that was full of opaque, black water. Without more context, I had dismissed it as fake, but I wasn’t doubting anymore. I turned on my shower – it also sputtered before the water turned the same dark brown. I tried my sink again. Still brown. Then I flushed my toilet; it lurched away from the wall. I opened the lid to see chocolate-colored water slowly filling the bowl.
I took a video and posted it on Twitter with the caption, “My water just now in Jackson, MS.”
Within minutes, I was getting hundreds of retweets. That turned into dozens of direct messages, emails and phone calls from reporters around the world requesting to play the video on TV that night, and literally thousands of replies all asking the same question: What was in my water, and why was it that brown?
I had the same questions. Like all of my coworkers at Mississippi Today, I had been covering the crisis since it began on Aug. 29, but I wasn’t reporting on the condition of the water system or treatment plants.
Still, I thought I’d be well-suited to get the answers as a journalist. But more than two months later, I still don’t know what, exactly, was in my water, or why it turned brown. I’ve talked with experts in water quality and city officials – they gave different answers. The experts say that discolored water is a natural phenomenon in aging water systems, though the pipes in my building could’ve contributed. City officials are adamant my brown water was “an isolated incident,” but we obtained records showing people across the city had experienced similar brown water during the height of the crisis.
The city also said they were going to test my water, but after weeks of back and forth with me, they admitted they never did.
But the first call I made that day was to my landlord’s front office. I wanted to know if other properties in Belhaven were affected or if my unit, a 1940s quadruplex, was the only one. Though the pipes in Belhaven are decades old, much of the neighborhood is downhill and nearby J.H. Fewell, the city’s secondary water plant – as a result, the homes here are often better able to weather water-related crises than those in other parts of the city.
The office manager answered the phone. Multiple properties were affected, she said. The water in Nejam Properties’ office in Belhaven Heights, a sister neighborhood on the hill across Fortification Street, was the color of “weak coffee.”
“That’s all to do with the city of Jackson and the boil water notice and stuff like that,” she said in a way that seemed intended to be reassuring.
Even before Gov. Tate Reeves declared the water emergency in a late-night press conference on Aug. 29, there was widespread confusion in Jackson about whether the water was safe to drink. Despite months of on-again, off-again boil water notices, many people, including myself, had been using the water normally. The mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, had repeatedly questioned if the most recent boil water notice, which had been imposed by the state in July, was necessary.
This lack of clarity from both the city and the state continued throughout the crisis, making it hard for many Jacksonians to know what to trust. Reeves’ initial press conference did not include Lumumba or anyone from the city – and the very next day, Lumumba disputed several of Reeves’ comments, including an alarming statement that raw flood water had entered the O.B. Curtis treatment plant and was flowing into people’s homes.
In my apartment, the first clue as to what happened came a few hours after I posted the video. That afternoon, I learned my neighbor directly beneath me on the north side of the building had been getting brown water in his kitchen sink for a week if he used hot water. But on the south side, my neighbors still had clear water, albeit with low-pressure. An expert later told me this could indicate an issue with the pipes inside my section of the building – something my landlord, not the city, would be responsible for.
My water cleared up the day after I posted the video on Twitter, but it continued to gain views. By Monday, it had been watched more than 10 million times. That afternoon, I looked through my Twitter DMs.
One message stood out. It was a request from the City of Jackson’s account. They asked for my address so they could come test the water.
I could send it, I replied, but I wanted to know why they were asking.
“… If the water is that brown… we want to get the address to Public works and the health department to find the reason why,” they responded.
“Gotcha!” I wrote back before sending my address. Since I work from home, I said the city could come by any time.
“Ok…,” they wrote. “I’m going to give that address to our public works person… and hopefully they’ll be able to determine what the heck is going on.”
After some back and forth, the city’s Twitter account asked if my water was still brown.
“Can we get a sample of it? (I’m asking per our public works director)”
The next morning, I ran into three city contractors on the sidewalk outside my apartment. They weren’t there to test my water but to install new meters.
I showed them the video. Gesturing down at the water meter, one of the contractors remarked that their work wouldn’t prevent the discolored water from happening again.
Jackson, he said, needs to re-pipe the whole city.
The exchange prompted me to check in with the city’s Twitter account.
“When do you think y’all will send someone over?” I asked at 9:42 a.m.
Six hours later, the city replied, “Hey Hey!!!! I think they went out there this morning…”
That was my last exchange with the city’s Twitter account, but I would learn – when I reached out to the city a month later – that Public Works never tested my water.
Meanwhile, at Mississippi Today, we were trying to do our own test of my water – an effort that proved fruitless.
Our health editor, Kate Royals, had been researching how to test water and found a private lab in Ridgeland, a suburb of Jackson, called Waypoint Analytical. We ultimately submitted three tests to Waypoint over the course of a month, for a total of $137.
The first sample, which I took the same day I posted the video, had puzzling results. That Friday afternoon, I talked to the lab manager who told me I needed to collect 100 milliliters of water and could put it in Tupperware, the only clean container I had at home. We had decided to test my water for E. coli and “total coliform,” a type of bacteria used to indicate the presence of pathogens.
The water was still dark and turbid when I turned it into the lab, but the results they sent us a few days later showed the water was too dark to test.
“The sample could not be read for Total Coliform due to the dark coloration of the sample interfering with the Reading,” the results said.
So six days later, the day the boil water notice was lifted, we tried again.
The second test came back with high levels of total coliform but no E. coli. But I had committed two possible user errors. One, my Tupperware container might’ve introduced bacteria into the sample. Two, I didn’t flush out the line by running the bathroom sink faucet before taking the sample, the water-testing protocol generally recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Nearly another month passed before we could get a third and final test. This time, I got more guidelines from the lab and followed them to a tee, cleaning my faucet with bleach (which yielded more brown sediment) and running the water for one minute before collecting it in a sterile container and placing it in a bag of ice.
It came back with no bacteria detected. But that’s not the full story.
One expert I later consulted, Francis de los Reyes – a professor of environmental engineering and microbiology at North Carolina State University – suggested that because the lab’s test required re-growing bacteria, the bleach I had used on the faucet could’ve lingered in the water, killing any organisms that might’ve been present. He said I should’ve run the tap for longer than one minute to clear the bleach.
So what was in my brown water, and why did it happen? Other experts I talked to could only speculate. De los Reyes’ colleague, Detlef Knappe, who specializes in water quality and treatment, told me that because there was likely no E. coli in my water, the brown color was probably the “natural” result of a drop in pressure in the old pipes.
In a functioning water system, Knappe explained, generators push water from the plant to homes, where it stays suspended in the pipes until a faucet is turned on. But in old water systems like Jackson’s, lined with cast iron pipes, a drop in pressure can cause accumulated sediment to collapse into the disrupted water stream and turn it brown. The water isn’t leaving the plant a dark brown color, Knappe said, but becomes discolored somewhere along its journey to the faucet.
Christine Kirschoff, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State University, had another perspective. Though she agreed that the brown water was likely caused by a drop of pressure in the pipes, she said it could’ve been exacerbated by the routing of the pipes in my building. That scenario would explain why my downstairs neighbor also had discolored water but my neighbors to the south never did.
The last week of September, I went on vacation and promptly got food poisoning. I would later learn that as I was laid up on my couch – subsisting on chicken nuggets and Uncrustables and using up the last of the bottled water I’d bought the first week of the crisis – the mayor had commented on my water at a town hall the same week.
A recording of the town hall at the New Jerusalem South Church on Sept. 27 shows Lumumba, microphone in hand, standing in front of poster boards of graphs, pictures of O.B. Curtis and a spreadsheet labeled “IMMEDIATE NEEDS.” He starts talking about my water around the 12-minute mark in a tangent about re-watching an interview he gave on national TV.
By now, my tweet had helped shape the national perception of Jackson’s water crisis.
“I was upset, because I did an interview,” Lumumba said. “And y’all know when I do these interviews, I can’t see the packages they’re running, I can’t see the images that they’re running in the background – all I see is a blank screen. And they keep showing this black water coming out of a faucet, right?”
My water, Lumumba went on to say, represented an “extremely rare situation” issue at “one isolated building.”
“That is not what is coming out of your water treatment facility, right?” he said. “You’re not having black water going to every resident. Y’all – y’all live in Jackson. Y’all – how many times have you seen a black water come out of your faucet? Right? I have residents tell me time and time again that they don’t know where that was, right?”
For me, this raised several new questions. Did the city actually send anyone to test my water? How were they able to determine the brown water was isolated to my building? What other discussions did they have about my water? Why didn’t the city reach out to me with their conclusion?
On Oct. 13, I sent an email asking if the city had tested my water to Melissa Faith Payne, the city’s public information officer.
“I believe the discolored water at your building was an isolated incident … and not indicative of the water that actually comes from the plant,” she responded the next day. “I think it had more to do with the lines/pipes at your building. I’ll Loop our public works team in to get more information for you.”
I followed up. What was the mayor’s basis for his comments at the town hall? If it was easier, I suggested, I would be happy to talk with the Public Works employee that tested my water.
“I briefed the Mayor just before the town hall,” Payne replied, adding that she was still waiting on an answer from Public Works.
About a week later, I got a statement from Jordan Hillman, the interim director of Public Works. The department could not make any employees available for an interview, she said, due to the workload of maintaining the water system, but Hillman did explain why the city thought my water was an isolated incident.
“This incident was indicative of a local pipe issue for a variety of reasons including knowledge of water condition leaving plants, water color at nearby fire hydrants, and experience with similar issues,” Hillman said. “There were extremely limited reports of similar water discoloration through our report tool.”
The tool that Hillman is referring to is an online survey the city created for residents to report the color of their water. My coworker Alex Rozier, who has been covering the crisis closely, recommended I fill it out the same day I posted the video.
I asked the experts what they thought of Hillman’s reply.
Knappe, the NC State professor, told me that the water from a fire hydrant isn’t necessarily representative of the color of water inside a home, because the pressure and speed at which water comes out of a hydrant is much greater than a faucet. Kirschoff said that it depends on where the fire hydrant that the city examined was located relative to my apartment.
Unsatisfied, I put in several public records requests. I asked for copies of any communications about my water, which the city has only partially fulfilled.
After a few more days of inquiries, Hillman finally told me that “no samples were taken from your specific home or area at that time.”
I also asked for responses to the report tool. Despite the fact that the mayor said my experience was an “extremely rare situation,” the submissions from other Jacksonian detailing discolored water seem to say otherwise. Out of 565 responses, including mine, to the form since Aug. 29, 423 – or 74% – reported discolored water. The submissions came from across the city but about a third were concentrated in northeast Jackson. (We did not filter duplicates from this count.)
Responses from more than 20 people, a little more than 4%, contained descriptions of brown, gritty water that matched what I had seen in my home. Though far more people used the word “brown” to describe their water, I couldn’t tell if their report matched my experience because the city was supposed to send me pictures that had been uploaded in response to the form but hasn’t.
“Reddish brown water in both toilets strong enough to leave a brown ring,” one person wrote.
“When I boil my water it turn my pot brown inside my bath water have dirt in it,” another person said.
“My water is brown and leaves deposits of dirt..” a third submitted.
I asked Hillman and Payne why the city thought these responses were “extremely limited” on Nov. 4 but I haven’t heard back.
More than two months after my water turned brown, I haven’t had an issue. I’ve gone back to using my water to cook, wash my dishes, and brush my teeth, but every morning, I see reminders and warnings – representations of what could happen again. The grainy water left permanent, hair dye-like splotches on my toilet bowl, bathtub, and sink basin. Now, I always run my water for one minute before I use it.
The city and state seem to have returned to the contentious relationship that preceded the crisis, with both sides accusing the other of providing incorrect information, which only further weakens public confidence in the system.
There’s no sign this will change. As winter sets in, raising the possibility that another freeze could shut down the system, the state is considering if it will lift the emergency declaration. Multiple lawsuits have been filed. And though it’ll become public soon, just last week, the city inked an agreement with the federal government to fix the water system – in secret.