Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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

Everyone deserves reliable access to clean water for drinking, cooking and washing, but that’s often not the case in mountainous Eastern Kentucky.

As the Herald-Leader reported this series, Stirring the Waters, in recent months, we spoke with dozens of residents, industry experts, state regulators and local officials about how to improve this fundamental, life-sustaining service in Appalachian Kentucky. These are their suggestions.

More grants for service line repairs

There’s a huge pot of federal money that some in Central Appalachia think could solve the region’s water woes.

The federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund has accumulated billions of dollars through fees it collects from coal companies as they mine, and though billions of those dollars have gone unspent, Congress now allows the fund to be used for economic-development projects in coal-producing regions, including Eastern Kentucky.

In February, state and federal officials announced a $3.4 million investment to improve Martin County’s water infrastructure through a grant from the Kentucky Division of Abandoned Mine Lands.

Though officials at the deeply troubled water district said the improvements earmarked for the project will help it move forward, the money cannot be used for what the district needs most: replacing and repairing leaking service lines. District officials and residents contend these dilapidated lines continue to cause problems for customers, including service interruptions, and cause the district to lose nearly three of every four gallons of water it cleans before the water reaches customers.

Jimmy Kerr, the district’s treasurer, said Abandoned Mine Lands grants can only be used for projects that constitute “economic development,” which does not include replacing broken service lines to existing customers. Kerr and others, though, argue the economy of Martin County can’t possibly prosper if its water district keeps pumping out muddy water, or no water at all.

Raise rates

Throughout the region, water districts have repeatedly failed to increase ratesdespite declining populations and dwindling revenue from coal severance taxes, which historically helped establish and maintain water systems in the region.

Industry experts and regulators said water district governing boards, which are usually appointed by county judge-executives, too often bend to political and societal pressure to keep rates low.

“People are leaving, so the customer base that they originally set their data upon is not there,” said Gary Larimore, executive director of the Kentucky Rural Water Association. “The only way to make that up is to raise rates.”

If water districts hope to survive, officials and experts said they will have to make the tough decision to raise rates when necessary, even when it is unpopular.

Make a long-term plan and stick to it

Like many struggling water districts in Eastern Kentucky, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission also used to lose more than half the water it produced before it reached customers, said John Sullivan, chief engineer for the commission. Now it loses about 10 percent.

The transition was “an extremely long process” that included unpopular rate hikes, but Sullivan said struggling water districts must create multi-year plans to replace and improve existing water meters, which often disrupt a district’s ability to track water loss.

In addition, he advised performing yearly leak-detection surveys across the entire web of service lines, and creating formalized plans to fix broken or cracked service lines.

Give state regulators more authority

Leaders of the Martin County Water District have repeatedly failed their customers, Kentucky Public Service Commission Chairman Michael Schmitt wrote in an opinion earlier this year.

For years, district officials deliberately refused to increase rates as necessary, ignored a recommendation to fix its exorbitant water loss rate, and failed to create any plan to address service interruptions that routinely cause some families to go a week or more without running water, Schmitt wrote.

“The residents of Martin County are unfortunately the captive customers of what most certainly has been, over the last two decades, the most poorly operated water district in the state of Kentucky,” Schmitt wrote. “Over the years, Martin District has intentionally ignored the efforts of the Commission and the suggestions of numerous experts by refusing to take the actions needed to prevent the debacle it now faces.”

The failures of the district were self-inflicted, but could have been mitigated had the Kentucky legislature expanded the authority of the Public Service Commission to impose new management on districts like Martin County, which was, for years, on an obvious path to catastrophe.

“In an extreme case, such as presented here, the public interest would be best served if the Commission had the authority to immediately seize control of Martin County’s water utility and put a management team in place,” Schmitt wrote. “The General Assembly, however, has not granted us that authority.”

Engage the community

Many people in Eastern Kentucky do not trust the water that comes out the tap. Instead, they buy bottled water or find natural springs to supply water for cooking and drinking.

Lana Pace, finance officer for Cawood Water District in Harlan County, said many people in the region have “an inherent kind of skepticism” of water districts and other utilities.

To regain the trust of customers, experts said water districts must engage the community by holding forums, inviting residents to water board meetings, and keeping residents updated through social media pages.

Stephanie McSpirit, a sociology professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has worked on water projects in the region, said districts could also help restore trust by establishing citizen advisory committees, and by training people to access and read water quality reports filed by water districts and the Kentucky Division of Water.

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 kentucky.comwvgazettemail.comwvpublic.org and thegroundtruthproject.org.