Water Systems: The Invisible Infrastructure

As rural water systems age, challenges mount

Date: February 19, 2018

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By Dan Radmacher

Most Americans don’t think twice about the ability to turn on a tap and have clean, safe water pour out.

Mason jars with yellow tap water

The jars above show municipal tap water from a Martin County, Ky., family’s home in 2016. They gather water from a seasonal spring when it’s flowing, and when the taps run dry, the family has used boiled pool water for bathing and washing dishes.

“Water is something we take for granted,” says Glenn Barnes, associate director of the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina School of Government. “We just assume we’re going to turn on the tap and water’s going to come out and it’s not going to kill us.”

But in many places across Appalachia, people live without such an assumption and it can be a devastating situation for these residents.

“When you are talking about communities and service to those communities, there is no greater, higher calling than to provide safe drinking water and proper sewage treatment,” says Amy Swann, executive director of the West Virginia Rural Water Association, which serves as a resource for small water and wastewater systems in the state. “There’s none. If you don’t have those two building blocks, you don’t have anything. You don’t have economic development. You don’t have a place where people want to come to work and live. You’ve got trouble attracting teachers, doctors, dentists and other professionals.”

Donna Stanley, administrative agent for the Coalfield Water Development Fund in Big Stone Gap, Va., agrees. Stanley worked in U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher’s office when the federal fund was established to help complete financing for water projects in Southwest Virginia.

“Of all the things I encountered working in the congressional office, this is what touched my heart the most,” Stanley says. “If you don’t have water, you don’t have much else. Poor water quality really increases costs for people. You need to buy bottled water or install expensive filtration systems. Low-income people just can’t afford that expense.”

Aging water systems, declining populations, economic distress and a host of other factors are making it very difficult for thousands of small community water systems across Appalachia to keep up with day-to-day operating costs, much less plan ahead to ensure that the system is properly maintained and upgraded.

“These places are doing what they can with limited resources, but there’s a limit to how far you can go with underfunding infrastructure,” says Barnes. “The biggest problem is that the pipes are buried. Most people have no idea what shape the pipes are in. You’ve got pipes that are 100 years or older in that region. Some systems still have cast-iron pipes. Some still have clay pipes. There are some still with wooden pipes, believe it or not.”

In January 2018 the reservoir that supplies the Martin County Water District’s treatment plant dropped so low that the system lost pressure, leading to an outage that lasted 9 days for some residents. Citizen photo by Lisa Stayton, courtesy of The Mountain Citizen

In some places, like Martin County, Ky., residents are afraid to drink the water — which often flows brown — when it flows at all. Residents went more than a week in January without any water due the district’s inability to pay to install a replacement for a broken pump.

“Nobody trusts drinking the water here,” says Gary Ball, editor of The Mountain Citizen in Martin County. “People who can afford it buy bottled water — even to cook with.”

water pump

After the Martin County water system lost pressure in January 2018, this pump was used to feed the water treatment plant. Citizen photo by Lisa Stayton, courtesy of The Mountain Citizen

The expense of bottled water isn’t an easy one to bear for a lot of people in the county, which has a median income of just over $29,000. “Those who can’t afford bottled water are forced to drink what comes out of the tap,” Ball says. “We have lots of retirees on fixed incomes, people who have to choose between buying bottled water and buying medication or food.”

In addition, Martin County residents pay a lot for the water they don’t trust. Ball says residents pay $6.70 per 1,000 gallons, resulting in $50 to $60 monthly bills — almost three times what Louisville, Ky., residents pay per 1,000 gallons.

According to the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database, Martin County’s water system has long been in violation of federal drinking water standards and contains at least four contaminants at levels that exceed various public health guidelines.

Martin County residents have been working with the Kentucky Public Service Commission to force the water district to improve its operations and act more transparently. After Martin County Concerned Citizens — a watchdog group that Ball is involved with — was granted intervenor status in the PSC hearings, four of the five members of the water district board resigned.

Ball doesn’t expect much of their replacements. “They’re not appointed based on knowledge or expertise, but on whether they’ll make any waves,” he says.

The situation in Martin County has gotten a lot of press, but it’s far from the only struggling system. While small systems across the nation face many of the same challenges, in Appalachia, those challenges are often amplified and exacerbated by issues like terrain, geography and isolated pockets of population.

“The systems are smaller in Appalachia, and the topography makes creating regional systems more challenging,” says Jeffrey Hughes, director of UNC’s Environmental Finance Center and co-author of a 2005 study examining funding of drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in Appalachia. “The region is very diverse economically, but at the time of our study, communities on the whole had fewer resources than the U.S. as a whole — in other words, income was lower, economic growth was lower, etc.”

That study summed up the drinking water and wastewater situation in the region like this: “By any definition Appalachia is a rugged land of extremes. Its generally ample rainfall and, in some subregions, its groundwater resources bless it with water for drinking and waste assimilation. But its topography, its legacy of water pollution from economies built around resource extraction, and the extremely low fiscal capacity of many of its communities make funding water and wastewater improvements difficult.”

Those working to help improve access to drinking water in Appalachia today seem to agree about the difficulty of maintaining and improving drinking water systems in the region. “The challenges, generally speaking, are about the terrain — the hills and the ability to get water up the hills, then deliver it to people,” says Rahul Gupta, commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health. “The communities tend to be more rural, with fewer customers. Three-hundred-and-fifty-six of the 454 public water systems in West Virginia have a population average under 3,300.”

Water Costs

Economies of scale make a huge difference in public water systems, according to UNC’s Barnes. “The system that you need to serve 100 people costs about the same as a system that serves 500,” he says. “That’s a challenge.”

It’s a challenge that many small communities in Appalachia don’t have the resources to meet. “Small towns have lost their industrial base,” says Barnes. “They have aging populations, shrinking populations. The total number served is going down while the number on fixed incomes or unemployed is going up. Commercial and industrial customers that could help share the pain aren’t there anymore. A lot of federal grants aren’t there.”

crew works on water line

A crew repairs a water line. Photo courtesy of the West Virginia Rural Water Association.

A small, economically distressed rate base makes it difficult to charge enough to pay for day-to-day operations or take on the kind of debt necessary to finance expensive upgrades or replacements — especially with systems that are well past their operational lifespan.

“I used to joke about some of these places using duct tape and chewing gum to keep things running until I literally found a system that patched a hole in a pipe with duct tape,” Barnes says.

“Water systems require constant upkeep,” says Michael McCawley, interim chair of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences at West Virginia University. “Pipes go bad. Pipes leak. It’s the nature of the system. Constant upkeep means you need constant revenue, but the revenue sources have changed. The production of coal is down, taxes are down.”

Exacerbating these trends, state and national agencies have shifted from providing funding through grants to using low-interest loans. “Grants are becoming very hard to come by,” says Andy Crocker, Virginia state manager for the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, Inc., a nonprofit group that helps communities develop and maintain water and wastewater systems. “Water systems can’t justify borrowing money when it will result in the customers, the end users, having bills much higher than they can afford. Grant money has filled that gap for a long time, but the climate is getting more difficult just because grants, period, are disappearing.”

These smaller systems often lack the staffing capacity to effectively go after the grants that are available. “Even when extra money has been available, like through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, these systems are always slower getting out of the blocks,” says Russ Rice, director of planning and development for SERCAP. “They don’t have the staff and research capability to apply. It’s difficult for them to compete with more urban and more well-resourced cities.”

As a result, bigger cities got the lion’s share of the grant money directed at drinking and wastewater infrastructure in the 2009 stimulus bill passed to help get the country out of the Great Recession, according to Rice.

Crocker claims the previous prevalence of grant funding ingrained some bad habits in water system managers. “In the ‘80s, utilities didn’t look at managing their assets because they thought they could just get a grant for it,” Crocker says. “That philosophy ended up really hurting them worse. That’s why they got so far behind; they kept kicking the can down the road. As the grant money began to disappear, it was hard for them to believe, so they kept kicking needs down the road.”

Politically, it can be hard in some communities to pitch a big investment in water and sewer upgrades, especially if it will result in rate increases. “One of the things I’ve seen in talking to communities and people working in utilities, they have trouble selling upgrades to water,” says Amanda Howe, SERCAP’s director of regional programs. “It’s not something [residents] see every day like roads and bridges. They’re not thinking about it until it’s a problem.”

Public health is an obvious concern that arises from worries about the declining state of infrastructure. Leaks can allow potential carcinogens, heavy metals and other contaminants into the system.

Though lead exposure from old pipes became a huge story in Flint, Mich., Gupta said that doesn’t appear to be a problem in West Virginia. “What we’ve discovered when we do see elevated levels of lead in children, it’s usually not in the water, but the housing,” he says. “We have a lot of older housing with lead-based paint and other things. That seems to be more the issue than is the water.”

Some systems don’t have the resources to do the testing needed to determine how safe the water is, according to Walt Ivey, director of the West Virginia Office of Environmental Health Services. “If systems aren’t doing the testing that needs to be done, we really don’t know the quality of the water,” Ivey says. “If we see that, we’ll issue a boil water order as a precautionary measure.”

Sometimes, lack of testing isn’t because water systems can’t afford the testing, it’s because they can’t find licensed professionals to run them. “Retaining qualified system operators can be very difficult,” Barnes says. “You’ve got just the kind of issue that any small town has for any job. There’s been a giant flow of people from rural areas to urban areas.”

According to Barnes, younger people aren’t entering the profession, causing older operators to stay on long after they would have ordinarily retired. “It’s unfortunate,” he says. “These are good-paying, stable jobs. But it’s not a very sexy field to be in. Very few people set out to be in the water field.”

Sustaining Small Systems

The coal town legacy across much of Appalachia also causes problems. In many company towns, water was provided to residents free of charge. Meters weren’t even installed. When the coal companies left or went out of business, communities often struggled to keep the water flowing. After a private system went bankrupt, the McDowell County Public Service District in West Virginia took it over and initially served 522 customers, according to McDowell PSD Executive Director Mavis Brewster.

Convincing some of the communities to sell their systems — even the struggling ones — sometimes requires educating residents. This is especially true when taking over municipal systems as the McDowell PSD did, which requires a vote by the community. “The first time the election was held in Northfork, it failed,” she says. “People were afraid of the rates. Even though the service was terrible, they didn’t want to come in.” The PSD printed up flyers and sent employees to talk to residents, and the second vote passed.

Many experts agree that this kind of water system consolidation is one of the best ways to reach the economies of scale that can make operations sustainable. But there are many barriers in the way, including a reluctance to cede political control and long-held animosities. “Sometimes mayors don’t get along,” says Barnes. “One town I was working with, swear to God, balked because of a fight after a basketball game in 1971. The people said they haven’t been able to trust that town since.”

In West Virginia, many small systems have been selling out to West Virginia American Water Company, according to Swann with the West Virginia Rural Water Association. “The rates are typically higher because they are a for-profit company,” she says. “But they have more staff, and more experienced staff. It’s hard to say there’s a downside by the time systems make the decision. Usually, they put it off until their backs are against the wall.”

But consolidation under West Virginia American Water exacerbated the impact of the 2014 chemical spill on the Elk River near Charleston, which affected all of the company’s 300,000 customers across the state. Critics of the company, such as the organization Advocates for a Safe Water System, charge that West Virginia American Water puts profit over safety, citing the company’s decision to remove water monitoring equipment from the Elk River treatment plant in 2004. “There are still folks who are leery of the water company because of that chemical spill,” Swann says.

Some places are making consolidation work well. “Kentucky has been far and away the most successful state at encouraging regionalization,” Barnes says. “The number of systems in Kentucky is significantly lower than states around them.”

Four counties in Southwest Virginia have also made great strides — mostly by working together, according to Jim Baldwin, executive director of the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission. “Back in the 1970s, only about 20 or 25 percent of the population had public water access,” says Baldwin. “Today, that’s in the mid-90s. It’s been a pretty amazing story.”

The four counties — Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell — face many of the same challenges as the rest of Appalachia. “The challenge has been the high cost of construction, the high cost of operation and maintenance after a system is built, and then the geographic challenge sort of underpins all that,” says Baldwin. “In the coalfields, there are huge counties, area-wise, but not much concentration of population. There have been a lot of water extensions up remote hollers. It’s been a hugely expensive proposition.”

water intake plant

The water intake at John Flannagan Dam in Dickenson County, Va. Photo courtesy of Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission

The Coalfield Water Development Fund, which started with a $10 million federal endowment grant, helped significantly with that expense by bridging the gap between what resources were needed and what communities could pull together on their own. “When communities looked at all the other funding sources that might help the project and got to the place where they just couldn’t make it happen, our program would help fill the hole,” says Donna Stanley, the fund’s administrative agent. She says the fund has contributed more than $8 million to projects, leveraging more than $88 million in other funding.

Regionalization has also been key. “Buchanan County had no significant surface water,” Baldwin says. “To get adequate drinking water, they had to join forces with Dickenson County and the town of Clintwood to build the John Flanagan Lake water treatment plant. That meant 25 miles of water lines just to get to Buchanan County.”

There are some problems associated with regionalization. The long network of pipes connecting remote customers can lead to health concerns. Crocker from the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project explained that when water is in the distribution system for a long period of time, disinfection byproducts — such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids — can form. Both Dickenson and Buchanan counties have violated federal levels of these substances, which have been linked to cancer.

“Regionalization means a great big spread-out distribution system,” Crocker says, which leads to the conditions that cause these byproducts to form. “Utilities that have had issues have been aggressive in dealing with them. They are very aware and being very proactive.”

The planning district works with the counties and municipalities to help write applications and find funding. Public funding has been an absolute necessity, according to Baldwin. “The customer base alone wouldn’t support the construction, financing, operation and maintenance,” he says. “One system spends $750,000 annually just on the power bill to keep pumping stations, pressure-reducing stations and other things running just to make the system work.”

Luckily, both the federal government and Virginia state government have pitched in. “There’s been a big effort on the federal and state level to focus funding resources on Southwest Virginia, especially in the coalfields, that have been supported over the years and continue to be supported,” Baldwin says.

But cooperation among communities has remained a vital component. “I see it every day,” Baldwin says. “I see communities facing challenges and neighbors and partners coming together. There’s a unanimity in purpose in terms of public water in this area. Everybody works together. If we didn’t work together, good things couldn’t happen. There was no alternative.”

The cooperation has paid off, and Baldwin hates to think where his region would be now without it. “We’re in the best situation we’ve ever been in,” Baldwin says. “If these communities didn’t have good public water, I don’t think many of them would still be here. They wouldn’t still be viable. We’ve faced a lot of challenges in terms of the economy. Had they not had safe, adequate drinking water, the story could be a much worse story. Business, industry and even tourism all depend on adequate public infrastructure, especially water.”

Life in the Cumberland Plateau isn’t perfect, according to Baldwin, but it’s definitely better than it would have been without this sustained effort. “Public drinking water has been the lifeline for our region,” he says. “It’s not as if we grabbed onto that lifeline and at the end was a rainbow of great things. In many ways, it’s been pure survival. But we have lots of great things going on that wouldn’t be available without drinking water.”

Gary Ball, the Martin County newspaper editor, sees the other side of that coin. “Not having good water, how are you going to attract any kind of industry here?” he asks. “Who’s going to a place where you can’t depend upon the water? Who would move here? It’s always been a coal-based economy here. We’re starting to see some diversification in Eastern Kentucky, but none of it’s happening here in Martin County, and it won’t because of the water.”

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