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Ted Henifin oversaw much of our region’s water for 15 years as general manager of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District.

Now he’s been tasked with fixing the troubled water system in Jackson, Mississippi.

Henifin was appointed by the U.S. Department of Justice in November to serve as third-party manager of the Jackson system.  

He’s managing hundreds of millions in federal funding to get the city out of the crisis. 

Residents of Jackson, a majority of whom are Black, went several days without water last summer after a major water plant failure, and issues continue to plague the system. 

WHRO spoke with Henifin about his experiences in Jackson.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WHRO: So you retired from HRSD early last year. How did you end up in this big new role not long afterward?

Ted Henifin: Yeah that wasn’t in the plans. But I did join the U.S. Water Alliance, which is a national membership nonprofit focused on water issues, water equity, access to water. And we thought maybe we could put together some that would be available to go down and see if we could assist Jackson in any way around (these) boil water challenges they were having last summer. And that was before the major failure flood event in September. That grew from there into the current position because the Department of Justice and the US EPA had come in to visit Jackson and basically wanted to take over control for some period of time of the water system to help get it back on track. Somewhere along the line, they started asking me if I'd be interested. I kept saying no. I didn't see how that was a role that an individual could actually do. They insisted they needed an individual. And the next thing you know, I became the person responsible and with full authority to operate and administer their drinking water system in Jackson.

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Photo courtesy of W.K. Kellogg Foundation 

Ted Henifin pictured at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant in Jackson, Mississippi. He's sporting a hard hat from his time at the Hampton Roads Sanitation District.

WHRO: What did you encounter when you first got to Jackson and what direction and funding were you given from the federal government?

TH: It was kind of shocking on the ground when I got there. It was really full disaster mode at that point. There was such a shortage of actual people, and so it quickly became a pretty intense, you know, long 16, 18-hour days in full disaster mode, seven days a week. They really had no resources. They couldn't really buy much. That was pretty eye-opening and I recognized that this was going to be a longer challenge than I had imagined and in a much bigger role. We had a couple of people from HRSD that came down on a specific task that I had requested, so Hampton Roads played a role in this recovery as well. 

We really didn't have a great path forward with funding. That all changed right before Christmas when Congress approved the Consolidated Appropriations Act and they included $600 million for Jackson water. And that really has been the only saving grace in all of this.

WHRO: What have you heard when meeting with residents of Jackson?

TH: The people in Jackson have really suffered through maybe 10 years of just unreliable and many water challenges where they've lost water altogether, to many parts of the city. And yet when I would run into folks early on, right after I was appointed, they're amazingly stoic. They were wishing me luck, thanking me for being here, very understanding (that) it's going to take some time. That actually is adding tremendous pressure in my mind with their expectations that I've got to deliver something here. And I unfortunately, got more celebrity here than I ever did in Hampton Roads. A lot of news coverage, so people recognize me a lot of places I go. They recognize me and they want to have a conversation, maybe tell me about some of their challenges, but also just very welcoming and with expectations that something's going to change and it's going to be positive for Jackson.

WHRO: So what progress has been made with improving the system and how? 

TH: They were operating the system without a computerized model that they could simulate to see what was going on, you know, what happens if they change this or that. You really need more information about your system to operate it successfully. And so that was the first request back to the (Water) Alliance. We're at the point today where we've got a functioning model that needs a lot of work to calibrate. You need a lot more information and that work is underway as well. So we've got several engineering firms, national firms that are under contract with us.

We've got more water in the tanks than anyone can remember in recent times or understanding how that works better. We're finding some big leaks. There's a huge problem with leaks in the Jackson water system, to the tune of we might be losing as much as 30 million gallons a day of treated drinking water. So just a tremendous number of things that no one would really probably take notice of that are falling into place. I’ve got some personal anecdotal experience with (older pipes) because I live in Hampton, an older part of Hampton, and often had low pressure and brown water just because of the pipes. And I learned a lot about that through conversations with the Newport News Waterworks folks. So it provides me some personal knowledge of the benefit of replacing these smaller pipes.

WHRO: What lessons can Hampton Roads learn to prevent something like this from happening here?

TH: It's a reminder of what happens if you start kicking the can down the road and you get too much into that habit. So you’ve got to make investments in your people and you've got to make investments in your infrastructure. And part of our challenge here is to find replicable, positive things that we can push out to other struggling utilities. Everyone believes that Jackson is kind of the canary in the coal mine around what can happen to a water or sewer system that isn’t re-invested in very well.

WHRO: What else would you want people to know?

TH: Jackson's actually a great place. If you haven't been to Jackson, don't judge it based on the news stories. It's a thriving, welcoming, great community. And we shouldn't let the disaster skew our perspective of what you would find if you visited Jackson. So I don't think it was ever on my bucket list of places to go, but I am very grateful I've had this opportunity to be here, get to know the people and recognize a part of the country that I hadn't really paid attention to. And the water's going to be getting better.

Editor’s note: Ted Henifin is a former member of WHRO’s Board of Directors.