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Stirring the Waters

‘Set the Buckets Out’: A Family Of 7 Prays For Rain As a Mountain Water System Crumbles



Jessica and Tim Taylor of Martin County collect water in buckets to deal with long water outages that have plagued their family. Photo: Will Wright/Lexington Herald-Leader

Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a series titled “Stirring the Waters,” focused on the lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia. Read the full series here. 

Jessica and Tim Taylor’s prayers seem to have paid off.

The rain came. It filled the buckets that lined the outside of their home. It filled the small plastic pool by the barn they use to water the animals. But not knowing how long the rain will continue makes them anxious.

“It’s beyond stressful,” Jessica Taylor said.

The Taylors and their five children had been without running water for about a week on this cool, overcast October morning. It isn’t the first time their water has been off for days at a time, and they know it won’t be the last.

In a nation awash with technological advancements, the lives of many families in Eastern Kentucky are still dominated by the absence of one basic thing: reliable water service. Never knowing whether they’ll have running water the next day, families like the Taylors cope by collecting rainwater and relying on the generosity of friends and family to do things most people take for granted: letting the kids take a shower before school; washing the pots and pans after dinner; and scrubbing the floors after the children go outside to play.

They’re one of many families affected by crumbling water infrastructure across Central Appalachia, where long outages often leave customers without running water for days or weeks at a time.

So when the weatherman said rain was on its way, the Taylors collected their buckets and brought them to the side of the house.

Their children know the drill.

“Our 9-year-old will say, ‘Hey Dad, it’s supposed to rain, should we set the buckets out?” Jessica Taylor said.

Outages like this have left Tim Taylor feeling neglected. He thinks somebody, or some government agency, should help families like his, who live every day not knowing whether they’ll have water for bathing and cooking, much less drinking.

“It’s pretty bad your kids have to pay attention to the news to know if they’re gonna be able to wash their hands, or if they’re gonna get their clothes washed or if they’re gonna be able to bathe,” Tim Taylor said. “They shouldn’t have to go through this. Nobody should, not just ours, but no kid and no person.”

The Taylors live in a small community called Huntleyville in Martin County, between the town of Warfield and the Pike County line. Their house sits on top of a hill at the end of a steep gravel driveway. Inside, children’s toys lie near a window that overlooks the barn, where the family raises pigs and other animals. It’s private and secluded, even for this remote area of Eastern Kentucky.

In the kitchen, a table holds stacks of Styrofoam plates and bowls — disposable items cut down on the water needed to wash dishes. When the buckets run dry, they’ll have to make the 40-minute round-trip drive to a relative’s house to wash their pots and pans.

“Every Martin County resident, you will see that,” Jessica Taylor said. “You will see Styrofoam plates, Styrofoam cups, disposable silverware, tons of rolls of paper towels, and that’s because we never know (whether we’ll have water).”

During long outages like this one, the Taylors shower as often as they can at the homes of friends and family. They can wash off with rainwater in a pinch, but nothing beats a warm shower when you’ve been without one for a couple days.

Near collapse

Their water provider, the Martin County Water District, has been the subject of heavy scrutiny from state regulators for years because of its leaky water lines, which lose nearly three out of every four gallons of water the district treats before it can reach customers; poor water quality and reliability; and shoddy financial management. Local officials have warned at multiple times this year that the district was just weeks away from financial collapse.

With more than $1 million of debt and, at times, barely enough money to meet payroll, officials said financial mismanagement in prior years has led the district to its current crisis.

In November, the Kentucky Public Service Commission, which regulates most Kentucky utilities, issued an order approving a permanent rate increasethat makes the average bill 25.7 percent higher than it was in March. The state also approved two additional surcharges to help the district fund repair projects and pay down its debt, bringing the average customer’s total increase to 44 percent.

It also set a deadline for the water district to hire outside managers and submit a rehabilitation plan. If the district fails to meet that deadline, the PSC said it will cancel the surcharges and appoint a receiver to run the utility.

If both surcharges take effect, the average customer using about 4,000 gallons of water a month will pay $57.53 next year — about $25 more than they would pay in Lexington, where water outages and boil water advisories are an oddity.

Jessica Taylor said the water outages that plague her family are more than inconvenient — they can be downright embarrassing.

She skipped a doctor’s appointment the other day, not because she got busy, but because she hadn’t been able to bathe.

Sometimes they’ll ask neighbors who have water to let their kids bathe during the school week, but that comes with its own shame, too.

“We’ve learned to really take care of each other,” Tim Taylor said. “The neighbors had to stick together, and that’s what made us get through a lot of this stuff.”

Still, they feel guilty using their neighbors’ now-pricy tap water.

“When you’ve got five kids to take a bath, that’s a lot of money,” Tim Taylor said.

In 2013, the Taylors paid about $35 a month for water. Now, their bills are closer to $90.

Like many Martin County Water District customers, they’re upset about recent rate hikes. They don’t think it’s fair to pay so much for water they often don’t get, and for water they don’t believe is fit to drink. On top of their water bill, they and other families spend even more money on bottled water and disposable plates and utensils.

Martin County is one of the 20 poorest in the state. According to the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program, the average household income was just shy of $30,000 in 2016.

“Of course, you will pay for whatever you have to pay for, because it’s a basic necessity, but I don’t see how people in the area are gonna make it,” Jessica Taylor said.

There ain’t no water

The Taylors could not say exactly how often their water goes off, but it’s frequent enough to become part of their daily routine.

“You go over to the faucet, there ain’t no water. You go over there maybe two days later and turn it on again, you might have a drizzle,” Tim Taylor said. “Maybe a day or so later you go over there and might be a good pressure of water.”

The Kentucky Division of Water keeps limited data on the length and frequency of outages, but water districts are required to issue boil water advisories after line breaks, which often lead to outages. Between January 2017 and Oct. 22 of this year, the Martin County Water District issued 32 boil water advisories caused by line breaks, according to data from the Division of Water.

Major breaks, like the one that happened in Martin County in October, can shut off water to thousands of residents at a time.

Because the Taylors live on a hill, they said it can take daysfor enough pressure to build up in repaired lines before water reaches their house.

Tim Taylor said he thinks the water district or some other agency should deliver water to residents during these long outages.

“They need to have trucks of water in here to give out to the people, to try to help the people,” he said. “If you can’t supply it through the line, you need to supply it some other way.”

When the Taylors talk about how unreliable their water is, they often point to the impact it has on their children.

Sometimes, when the water’s out, Jessica Taylor tells the kids they can’t go outside and play because she doesn’t know if they’ll be able to wash off before school the next day.

“It’s tough to tell your 9-year-old, ‘No, you can’t go outside and play, you’ve got to stay in today, we’ve got to stay clean,’” Jessica Taylor said. “You just shouldn’t have to do that.”

Most of their children will leave Martin County when they grow old enough to head out on their own. There’s not much for them here, they said.

The coal mining that helped sustain this county’s economy for decades is a shadow of what it was just five years ago, when there were about 750 coal jobs in Martin County. Now, there are about 60.

Outside of the mines, there aren’t many other options. The school district is the county’s largest employer, and the Taylors don’t think any large factories or manufacturing companies would want to relocate here.

“They’re not gonna set out buckets and try to run a factory,” Tim Taylor said. “Would you want to come in here and set up a factory knowing that maybe two days out of the week you’re going to have water, the rest of the time you ain’t? It’s ridiculous.”

No quick fix

Jessica Taylor said she hopes a recent $5 million influx of grant money to the Martin County Water District will help get the water system back on track, but that money hasn’t yet been delivered to the district.

When that money does arrive, $3.4 million is earmarked for upgrades to the district’s treatment plant and a new intake pump to pull water from the Tug Fork river. The remaining $1.2 million, awarded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, is designated for repairing leaking service lines.

Even with the latest grants, rate increases and surcharges, it will likely take five to seven years to fix the district’s long list of problems, said Jimmy Kerr, treasurer of the Martin County Water Board.

“It can be fixed. Is it gonna be easy? No. Is it gonna take a while? Yes,” Kerr said. “It took 20 years to get in the shape that we’re in, we’re not getting out of it in eight months.”

Many customers say they don’t trust the water district to spend its new-found money responsibly, or to take the necessary steps to provide clean, reliable water.

“They ought to tell the truth: the water is nasty,” said Calvin Jude, who also uses buckets to collect rainwater at his home near Inez in preparation for long outages and low pressure. “Admit there’s a problem.”

At water district board meetings and community gatherings this year, angry residents often became outraged at the district’s response to their plight. During one such meeting in January, a customer who was yelling and complaining about his water service was grabbed by the throat and thrown out of the building by a police officer.

In an October meeting, one attendee filled two cups of water and dared Kerr and Greg Scott, the district’s interim general manager, to drink it.

Both took a sip.

Kerr said he and his family drink the water, and have rarely experienced the issues that some residents like the Taylors report.

Still, he said the district takes their problems seriously.

“If one person in our district is having a different experience than what I’ve had or am having, then it’s our job as the district to find out why and try to fix that,” Kerr said. “That’s our responsibility … to make sure that everybody has clean, safe, affordable drinking water.”

Meanwhile, the Taylors will keep their buckets on hand, ready for the rain.

“We need a lot of help down here,” Tim Taylor said. “We actually need a lot of help from somebody to get this situation fixed. It shouldn’t never have got this bad.”

This series is part of a collaborative effort by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Lexington Herald-Leader and West Virginia Public Broadcasting that was coordinated by The GroundTruth Project and its new initiative, Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Read more at and

Stirring the Waters

Inside Appalachia: How Drinking Water Systems Are Failing Rural Residents



Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.  Listen to the full episode below.

For many families in parts of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, the absence of clean, reliable drinking water has become part of daily life.

In this episode of the podcast Inside Appalachia, we hear from folks like Blaine Taylor, a 17-year-old resident of Martin County, Kentucky, who struggles to manage basic hygiene when his water comes out with sediment in it.

“I had to use a case of water last night just to get enough water in my bathtub just to get myself cleaned up for today at school,” he said. “It’s rough.”

In 2015, Inside Appalachia reported that water districts in the central part of the region struggle to perform routine maintenance, which leads to quality and reliability problems for customers. Sometimes, districts are understaffed and underfunded. The repairs they do make are often inadequate — and fail to address the long-term problems of water loss and crumbling service lines.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Molly Born, Caity Coyne, from the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and Will Wright, from the Lexington Herald-Leader, spent part of 2018 looking into this issue for a project called Stirring the Waters. They were working through the Report for America initiative, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation.

They discovered West Virginia would need $17 billion to connect hundreds of systems across the state to centralized utility services — both water and sewer. That’s according to the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council. The council is responsible for approving and overseeing infrastructure projects in the state.

That $17 billion is more than the entire 2018 state budget, about four times more.

By the end of 2017, only $8.5 million dollars were secured for the projects — just more than 1 percent of the necessary funds.

In this episode, we also follow a group of graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania, who recently toured water plants in McDowell County hoping to help find a solution to the problem.

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and was produced in collaboration with Report for America corps members Caity Coyne and Will Wright, and former corps member Molly Born, as well as the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Lexington Herald-Leader and GroundTruth staff members as part of their Stirring the Water series. Read the full series here

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Stirring the Waters

‘Who’s Going to Pay for It?’: No Easy Answers to Resolve Water Issues



The Keystone Water Department is operated out of the town's former city hall. Residents in Keystone have been living under a boil-water advisory since 2012 because the facility doesn't have a qualified operator. Photo: F. Brian Ferguson/Charleston Gazette-Mail

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth story in a series titled “Stirring the Waters,” focused on the lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia. Read the full series here

Local officials in McDowell County called a meeting in the town of Bradshaw to talk about broadband internet in West Virginia’s poorest county. But the first question from a resident focused on something more basic.

“Eleven years ago someone knocked on my door and promised me I could get city water. I still don’t have any city water, and I’ve never heard from them since — not once,” Sandra Roberts said. “Will you be like that? When is the next time we’re going to see you all out this way?”

The speakers assured Roberts they would not do that, and that this time, a promise would be fulfilled.

In McDowell County, it’s nearly impossible to attend a community gathering — no matter the focus — without water being part of the conversation.

“We hear it all the time, everywhere,” said Cecil Patterson, a McDowell County commissioner. “It’s a big concern for folks around here, [and] for us, too.”

When it comes to water, Roberts remains skeptical of any commitments handed down to her and her neighbors. She hasn’t touched the water coming out of the faucets in her Lex home in years. Instead, she drives about 40 minutes to Iaeger each week to fill up water jugs for her family from a mountain spring.

“We’re tired of having to wait for things, of being that afterthought and talked about when it’s convenient, but left behind when it’s not,” Roberts said.

Made of copper, steel, plastic and terra cotta, hundreds of miles of pipes weave underneath West Virginia, forming more than 500 water and sewage systems that serve a majority of the state’s residents.

Not all, though.

Not Roberts, or thousands of others who live in small hollows and communities nestled in nooks throughout the state’s natural mountainous terrain.

“What we have already done — that’s the easy stuff,” said Wayne Morgan, director of the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, a clearinghouse responsible for approving and overseeing infrastructure projects in the state. “All that’s left is the harder stuff — difficult extensions that cost more money, and all of that is on top of the money needed to take care of what is already there.”

According to the council, 62 percent of structures in the state are connected to a water system, and just 46 percent to a sewage system. Lex is one of those communities where many residents go without, and the council estimates that $17 billion — more than three times the state’s entire 2018 budget — would be needed to connect the hollow and the hundreds of others like it throughout the state to centralized utility services.

While a majority of that estimate is for extending lines for new connections — $2.3 billion for water and $10.7 billion for sewage — $4 billion is needed for rehabilitation work to ensure the current infrastructure still works.

As with the rest of the country, much of West Virginia’s water piping was laid in the early 20th century. Most has a lifespan of 75 to 100 years, a timeframe that has already expired in some places and is quickly approaching in others, said Amy Swann, director of the West Virginia Rural Water Association.

In many areas, this infrastructure was developed by coal companies operating company towns, and was handed off when coal production slowed and companies left. Residents were often ill equipped to operate the systems — the most qualified workers usually left with the companies — and early mismanagement and lack of necessary maintenance set many systems up for premature failure, with pipes giving way before their estimated timemark.

Mavis Brewster, director of the McDowell County Public Service District, said that’s the case for nearly every community sitting along U.S. 52, the rural county’s main route.

“Coal companies kept everything moving, some better than others, but when they left, the problems were mostly the same,” Brewster said. “Now we don’t know where a lot of these systems run exactly — original plans were lost — and we have less resources on hand to deal with more.”

The McDowell County PSD has made a practice of acquiring small systems in the region when they are unable to effectively serve their customers. Now operating 16 separate systems in the county, soon to be more, Brewster is an advocate for consolidating utility systems.

“Regional systems are the way to go. Sometimes, especially [in Southern West Virginia] geography can make them unfeasible, but when they are, it’s great,” Brewster said.

But some communities are too far apart to regionalize, and residents have other concerns.

After a project to improve water infrastructure in the towns of Northfork and Keystone, the McDowell PSD will take over service for the two towns. Brewster said this almost certainly will mean improvements for customers of those systems, both off which are considered historically noncompliant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Northfork residents approved the referendum proposing the county PSD’s takeover in 2014, but Brewster said the support wasn’t always there — McDowell County PSD had offered its services to the town in the past, but couldn’t get residents’ approval.

Throughout the entire state, but especially in Southern West Virginia, people take immense pride in the things they can independently own and operate, Swann said. For many community leaders, handing over something like a water system to a larger, neighboring entity can feel like handing over a piece of their independence.

“Some of this resistance is cultural and some of it is practical, at least to them,” Swann said. “It’s kind of like a perfect storm of aging infrastructure, cultural values, ability — or inability — to pay. It’s all a big problem.”

A few miles down from Northfork is Keystone, where residents don’t have meters for their water. While the water quality is questionable — the town has been operating under a boil-water advisory since 2012 — residents pay about $25 a month no matter their how much they use. But if they don’t pay, there’s no valve that can be turned to shut off the water.

Essentially, it’s free, Brewster said, and when the PSD takes over, residents know that’s going to change.

“They know, that if they get a new water system, they’re going to get metered water,” Swann said. “That’s part of the deal. They’re not going to walk by and not get metered water — it’s not going to happen.”

Vondalere Scott, the town recorder and former mayor of Keystone, worries that that the county’s takeover of the water system will mean less revenue for the town, which is already buried in debt.

The reality, though, is income from water bills does not compare to expenses accrued by the system, Brewster said. Regionalization, while perhaps difficult in the short term (correcting inadequate systems can be more expensive than forming entirely new ones, according to Brewster), is a crucial strategy for long term viability.

“Everyone’s costs go down — instead of having 100 customers on a small system trying to cover millions of dollars [for projects], you have thousands. There is less reporting and testing since you can consolidate, you buy chemicals in bulk and you don’t need as many operators. The fewer systems you have, the better.”

West Virginia is one of two states to lose population over the past decade, and much of that loss was centered in Southern West Virginia, according to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts. Since 2007, more than 18,000 residents have left the state.

That makes it even more important for smaller systems to band together, regionalization advocates like Brewster argue.

Geographically, water and sewage connectivity has grown in the last 10 years, but out of the 44 public water systems operating in Southern West Virginia’s coalfield counties — Boone, Lincoln, Logan, Mingo, McDowell and Wyoming — just 13 reported serving more customers in 2017 than in 2007. For the 22 sewage systems in the same counties, just four saw an increase.

But more people connected through the same sets of pipes, intake systems, treatment plants and reserve tanks means more people at risk if something goes wrong.

In 2014, thousands of gallons of chemicals spilled into the Elk River just upriver from the main Charleston intake center for West Virginia-American Water, a private company that has offered water services in the state for more than 100 years.

The spill left 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties connected to WVAW without potable water. A relatively small number of people in the same region, though, were connected to small, community water systems and didn’t have any problems..

In the 1990s, leaders at West Virginia-American Water saw the regionalization trend on the horizon. The company began using public-private partnerships to soak up smaller systems as they fell behind.

Because it’s so large, West Virginia-American is able to disperse costs for projects among more of their customers, so rate increases don’t hurt as much, said Dan Bickerton, the company’s director of business development.

“If you have less customers and more costs, your rates are going to continue to go higher and higher and higher, or your system is going to continue to deteriorate, and you don’t want those things to happen,” Bickerton said.

Jackie Roberts, director of the PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division, agrees that regionalization can help correct small, failing water systems. But she cites West Virginia-American’s practice of taking over systems in central West Virginia as a major reason for the company’s rate increases.

“The question is who is going to pay for it? If the customers in those local and desperate places can’t pay to begin with, who is going to?” Roberts said. “Acquisitions, if you do them, they’re going to cost money. They’re going to come with rate increases for existing customers.”

Other than revenue from customers — which solely cover operating expenses for the utilities — community systems often rely on local governments to pay for rehabilitation work and line extensions.

According to the United States Conference of Mayors, localities bear the brunt of responsibility for funding water projects — 98 percent of financing for water and sewage infrastructure throughout the nation is done by local governments. County commissions and town councils may not raise the money, but they apply for and get funds from grant programs, nonprofits and other agencies.

Grants are the most sought-after funding source for water projects, according to Marie Prezioso, director of the state Water Development Authority, the funding arm of the IJDC. There are fewer grants in recent years, though, a struggle that is also felt at the Rural Water Association as it tries to help small community water systems.

“There are some people who say we’ll just rebuild the systems and give them all grant money,” Swann said. “There just isn’t that much grant money.”

As grant funding has shrunk, water and sewage systems have started using more low-interest loans to fund their projects. Loans are funded through the Drinking Water Treatment State Revolving Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, two federal-state partnerships managed by the WDA.

The federal government designates money to these funds annually, but most of the spending power comes from interest and payments on loans granted to systems for projects in past years.

Low-interest loans can still bury small water systems in debt. Projects can take years to complete; that’s years before new customers can be added and provide a system with more revenue to pay off debt or pay for other maintenance, Brewster said.

The state hasn’t provided as much funding for such projects in recent years, according to Prezioso. The West Virginia Lottery, one of the largest sources of infrastructure funding, granted $46 million in 2014, but just $26 million in 2015. Those numbers are rising again, but the lean years had a real effect, she said.

In all, 144 proposed sewage and water projects were approved by the IJDC for construction in West Virginia, at a total of nearly $700 million. By Dec. 31, 2017, only $8.5 million — just over 1 percent of necessary funds — were secured for the projects.

If these projects were completed, they would connect 6,170 more customers — 3,063 water ratepayers and 3,107 wastewater ratepayers — to a centralized service. They could also improve service for upwards of 50,000 customers in the state.

While more secure and available funding could certainly improve how water and sewer utilities operate now, Swann is part of a minority that does not think throwing money at the issue can solve it. There will always be more need than available funds, she believes, and even if all pipes could be replaced today, utilities still need a way to maintain them, or else they’ll find themselves in the same position a few years down the road.

With limited and ever-shrinking external funding pools, systems are often left with little choice but to raise rates, a sometimes daunting process that can be made even more challenging by local political interests and policies at the West Virginia Public Service Commission, Swann said.

When a system wants to propose a rate hike, it must hire attorneys and accountants to audit its finances and prepare a report for the PSC. Brewster said McDowell County PSD pays an average of $10,000 each time it requests a rate increase.

“When you apply for [a rate increase], it’s not because you want to, it’s because you have to,” Brewster said. “It’s because you need more money to keep functioning, and having to pay all that to even get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ takes a toll.”

While the PSC does have systems to help small systems afford these costs, it’s just more red tape in an already grueling process, Brewster said.

Most times, the PSC will suggest a lower rate than proposed in an attempt to lessen the burden for customers. A study commissioned in 2014 by the West Virginia arm of the RWA and other water-focused organizations in the state analyzed how West Virginia regulates its utilities compared to other states. It found that the PSC rejects the fully requested amounts for rate increases “by a magnitude greater than” other, comparable states.

Swann wants to see the state reform the way it handles rates for water and sewage.

The PSC has final say on any rate increase for utilities, in an attempt to keep costs low while bringing in enough money to cover loan debt and keep systems up and running. The current system often means utilities can’t build up enough money to do those things, said Swann, who spent 25 years working as the director of the PSC’s public service district division before joining the RWA in 2013

The 50 State Study found that only seven other states in the nation regulate water or sewage utilities relatively as strongly as West Virginia does.

In the past, the RWA lobbied to update state code and deregulate parts of the PSC to make it easier for systems to build up capital and access other assistance they need.

For Jackie Roberts at the PSC, proposals to decrease oversight for systems can be concerning. While she understands the need for more revenue, she worries about the risks that could come to consumers if systems aren’t watched.

“We need to make sure what the utilities are doing is reasonable and necessary and in the ordinary course of business — that their expenses are appropriate,” Roberts said. “We look at every aspect of their operations and go from there.”

In 2015 a bill passed, allowing larger systems that operate as political subdivisions — those with more than 4,500 customers and $3 million in annual revenue — to not be regulated by the PSC for rate increases (within reason) or construction project proposals.

“We got that little chink away,” Swann said. “It’s worked exactly the way we said it’s going to.”

Last legislative session, a bill that proposed to do similar for smaller systems died in committee, much to the frustration of Swann, since this one would have assisted the community systems she feels need help the most.

Roberts expects to see other, related legislation floating around this upcoming session. She worries that, if passed, having less regulations through the PSC could mean more risk for consumers.

“Whenever you’re providing an essential service like water, you need to make sure it’s done correctly. We’re all familiar with intentional misdeeds — like in Flint — or even with chemical spills — like here in Kanawha Valley. This all needs to be done correctly, or there are serious risks,” Roberts said. “Someone might get along without heat or electricity for a few days, but water is essential. You’re not lasting long without it.”

While agencies and organizations may hold differing views on what should be priority for handling how water and sewer systems operate, most agree on two things: changes need to be made, and those changes will only be successful with strong, unwavering community support at the local level.

This can be difficult, as residents in many areas — like Sandra Roberts in Lex — have grown apathetic after feeling as though they’ve been written off for years.

“We’re tired of watching people make promises then put their money somewhere else when it really matters,” Roberts said. “Show us something, show us you’re serious about us. We can only take being knocked back so many times, and dammit, I think we’re just about there.”

The more residents that can rally for ownership or changes in a water system, the more influence they have — in 1980, that’s how McDowell County PSD was formed: women in the region, specifically in Caretta and Coalwood, would not step down from demanding access to clean, reliable water in their homes. So the PSD was formed by the county, and handed over to the woman who started the movement.

“These problems didn’t come over night and they aren’t going to be solved overnight,” Swann said. “I think if you have that dedicated group at the local level, that everyone should try to be supporting them in what they’re trying to do … Water is going to be around forever and these struggles are going to continue, to get worse, to grow, if we don’t.”

This series is part of a collaborative effort by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Lexington Herald-Leader and West Virginia Public Broadcasting that was coordinated by The GroundTruth Project and its new initiative, Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Read more at and

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Stirring the Waters

Search for Central Water System Proves Futile For One Family



Allen Adkins and his silbings live off this curve in Harless Fork Road, in Lincoln County. Adkins remembers his father thought he'd die before seeing a paved road cut through the hollow. Today, Adkins wonders if he will feel the same about water. Photo: Greg Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth story in a series titled “Stirring the Waters,” focused on the lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia. Read the full series here

In Southern West Virginia, reliable access to clean water doesn’t just mean getting what you pay for. Sometimes, you don’t have the opportunity to pay for it.

Allen Adkins has been trying for years to get water lines extended to his Lincoln County home. Without that, he and his family are left to depend on a set of wells that leaves them uncertain how long water will last each day.

“It’s just constantly watching the water — knowing how many seconds or minutes you can turn it on in the morning for breakfast and have enough left to last you for a bath at night,” said Adkins, a resident of Branchland. “It’s constant math, constant thinking, but I guess we’re used to it now.”

Adkins has lived in his hollow off Harless Fork Road for most of his life. His father built the house Adkins lives in now, his sister is right next door, his brother lives up the road, and Adkins owns another house a bit further back in the hills.

In his decades in the area, Adkins has drilled three wells on his current property, and several at other houses. His habit of counting developed years ago, after his first well began to run dry and he started to pick up on the signs. His current well has performed the best out of the three, only drying up temporarily a handful of times in the six or so years he’s had it. Still, he constantly worries what will happen when it — inevitably — goes dry permanently. He paid $3,000 to drill his last well, a steep price for the 65-year-old retiree, and he doesn’t think there’s much viable land left on his property to drill another one.

“We’re going to have to cut through those trees back there, behind the barn [to drill another well],” he said, pointing out his kitchen window, where a barn peeks through the woods, about two football field lengths away. “I don’t know if I can do it. I mean, I guess I can, I’ll have to, but it’s all getting exhausting.”

In 2013, Adkins and several of his neighbors and family members filed formal complaints with the West Virginia PSC. They wanted any of the surrounding water districts to extend service to their hollow.

“We have three water companies coming through [this area], and we can’t get either one,” his brother, Randy Adkins, who lives nearby, wrote on the complaint form.

On a line asking what remedy he sought, Randy Adkins wrote just four words: “To get clean water.”

Well water, when treated correctly and maintained, can produce perfectly drinkable water, but Allen Adkins does not trust his wells. Water testing has returned mixed results, and he doesn’t see himself paying for such tests regularly — between $100 and $200 for the testing itself, and depending on what’s found, up to hundreds more for chemicals to treat the water.

He’s been doing this for so long, the costs have added up, and he’s growing tired.

“So we just don’t drink it — it’s fine for bathing and laundry and all that, but we keep bottles around for drinking and cooking,” Adkins said, pointing behind him to the stove, where his son scrambled eggs for his granddaughter’s breakfast. “This would all be much easier, everything for us would be, if we could just get connected to something.”

In 2011, according to Adkins and the Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, the Branchland-Midkiff Public Service District had plans and money for an extension that would run lines right to the Adkins property.

Allen Adkins and about 10 others paid a tap fee — $250 each — and waited. The water never came.

They were told the district ran out of money before the project reached their neighborhood. A staff memo issued by the PSC after complaints filed by the Adkinses indicates that’s true — cost estimates from the project engineer showed there wasn’t enough money.

If the Adkinses and their neighbors wanted to be connected to a water system, the PSC memo reads, they would need to pay $20,000 per customer.

When PSC engineers and other staff member weighs the benefits of an infrastructure project against how many people would benefit and the utility’s financial standing, it may find the project “monetarily infeasible,” meaning it can’t qualify for state funding. If that happens, residents are told how much they would have to pay out of pocket to make the project happen.

Since these projects are often expensive — especially in areas like the Adkinses’ hollow, where rough terrain means more difficult work– breaking it down for individuals doesn’t breed much hope.

“We don’t have that [money]. We just don’t,” Allen Adkins said. “Not a lot of folks around here do.”

Just a tenth of a mile down from his home a fire hydrant sits on his neighbor’s property. He said that’s where the public water service stops.

“Why would they give the man down the road here water and not give us water? Why do we have to pay that much money?” Adkins asked, sitting at his kitchen table and shaking his head in frustration. “How is he different than us?”

Many areas unconnected to water services are similar to the Adkinses property: small communities or hollows with a handful of people, buried behind mountains and hard to access.

It’s a challenge, too, to convince current customers to pay more to cover the costs of extending services to those areas.

“What we are seeing is an unwillingness by existing customers of a system to pay to extend service to new areas,” Swann said. “The fact of the matter is all the easy stuff has already been served. What’s left is way out, sparsely populated. There’s a reason no one has laid pipes there before.”

So, without public water, Allen Adkins continues to count.

Those in his home — a revolving door of children, grandchildren, cousins and other relatives — coordinate schedules for laundry, showers, doing the dishes and cooking.

His son and grandkids help him haul buckets of water into their home, but as he ages, it becomes more difficult. Power outages — which are impossible to predict and in some cases last days — knocks out the pump at his well, leaving the well unusable. He keeps barrels full of reserve water on hand, but he never knows if it’s enough.

Adkins doesn’t hold a lot of hope that he will ever see public water pipes run on his property.

He remembers being a boy, helping his mother fish water out of an old chain well.

“We should be past this by now, we should have more. It’s 2018,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and looking down at his kitchen table. “My father, when he was still alive, he didn’t think he’d ever see a blacktop road running through here, and he did, he was able to, just a few years before he passed.

“I wonder if that will be the same for me. If maybe my grandkids will be able to enjoy [clean water]. I wish I could tell you, I just don’t know, though. I don’t feel too confident.”

This series is part of a collaborative effort by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Lexington Herald-Leader and West Virginia Public Broadcasting that was coordinated by The GroundTruth Project and its new initiative, Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Read more at and

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