FRENCHBURG — Debbie and Mike Weiner can see Cave Run Lake from their house, but they depend on rainfall for their water.
Rainwater runs off the roof to their gutters and through pipes to collect in an underground, 1,000-gallon cistern in the backyard. The water is then pumped into the house for bathing, washing clothes and the toilet. They use only bottled water for drinking and cooking.
"Yesterday it rained a lot," Debbie Weiner said in a recent interview. "That's when I washed my bedclothes and a lot of the things in the house that needed to be washed."
The Weiners are among a shrinking number in Kentucky — an estimated 93,600 households, or more than 234,000 people — who are not connected to a public water system. Their house on Leatherwood Road in rural Menifee County is about eight miles from the nearest water line and 20 miles north of Frenchburg, the county seat.
The Weiners desperately want to be connected to a public water system. At least one test showed harmful E. coli bacteria in their tap water, despite reverse-osmosis filtration, ultraviolet light and other purification measures. The couple haven't used the cistern water for cooking or drinking since 2012, when Debbie, 60, a former adult-education instructor at Morehead State University, was diagnosed with an incurable bladder disease. She keeps a log of the politicians and others she has contacted in her quest for "city water."
The Weiners highlight one of the gaps in water service in the United States. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 14 percent of the population relies on wells, cisterns or some unsustainable source for water, said Stephen Gasteyer, an associate professor of sociology at Michigan State University. Gasteyer has studied community and natural resources management.
"It's an embarrassment for us as a nation to have people in the 21st century who don't have access to water and sanitation," Gasteyer said. "But from the perspective of a small water system, they are already strapped. We had major infrastructure investments in this country in the 1930s ... through the 1970s. Well, a lot of that infrastructure is now wearing out. You have water systems of all sizes in this country that are struggling to stay in the black. So taking on the extra load of people who are a ways out of town seems like a real burden."
In Kentucky, about 5 percent of residents are not connected to a community water system, according to figures provided by Andy Lange, assistant director of the Kentucky Rural Water Association. Only California has a lower percentage of residents who are not served by community water systems.
(By contrast, almost a quarter of Kentucky's population — 23 percent — has no access to high-speed Internet. Kentucky ranks 46th in broadband availability.)
Many water lines were extended into unserved rural areas during the 2000s, when Kentucky had money from the national tobacco settlement. That money is gone, although there is a state revolving fund and other federal programs to extend water lines.
Trouble is, the cost of running water lines to remote spots often isn't cost-effective, said John Horne, a Nicholasville engineer whose firm has designed extensions in Jessamine County.
"To construct a distribution main, depending on the terrain and how much rock there is, it can run as much as $50,000 to $75,000 per mile," Horne said. The price can easily double in rough terrain common in Eastern Kentucky, including Menifee County.
Community development block grants and other programs are available, but potential projects must qualify, Horne said.
"The government looks at feasibility. If it's not feasible, ... they don't do it," he said.
Even if lines were extended to isolated pockets, low usage from a small number of customers poses other problems, Horne said.
"Especially on long, dead-end lines, if they can't use up all the water in the pipe in, say, two days, then it gets stale and then you get problems with odor and taste," Horne said. "Then you have to flush all that out and waste it."
Debbie Weiner has an answer ready when asked why taxpayer dollars should be used to pay for water lines to a remote spot where she and her husband choose to live.
"I think those tax dollars should pay for an American citizen to live anywhere they choose if I can open the paper and see that millions of dollars go to study garbage dumps that are closed," Weiner said. She was referring to environmental risk assessments performed on closed landfills.
She also said that millions of dollars in state incentives will help Alltech put a new bourbon distillery and aquaculture and poultry farms in Pikeville. The state will provide as much as $5.73 million for an access road wide enough to accommodate tractor-trailers to a new industrial park, and $8 million for a bridge to connect an access road with U.S. 23. The incentives will bring new jobs.
Weiner doesn't begrudge anyone jobs, but she said safe drinking water should be a high priority.
"Then let's build a better Rupp Arena," she said, referring to the now-stalled project that would have leveraged public and private dollars for a new Lexington home for the University of Kentucky men's basketball team.
Frenchburg Mayor Edward Bryant said Leatherwood Road is one of only two rural roads in Menifee County that are without water. To extend water to the end of that road deep within Daniel Boone National Forest could cost more than $1 million, Bryant said.
"They're in a remote area. There's only, roughly, 24 or 25 homes, and out of that there are 12 or 15 people that live there full-time," Bryant said. "We can't put a burden on the current water customers to extend that. It's a tough situation."
Nevertheless, he said, the Gateway Regional Water Management Council has put the Leatherwood area on a list of projects.
"For Frenchburg to get over there, we're going to have to cross that (Cave Run) lake some way," Bryant said. "That means a pump station and a water tower, then you've got a problem of meeting the state regulations, keeping the water fresh for such a few. ... It's just not feasible right now unless somebody comes along with a barrel of money."
In the meantime, because rainfall is unpredictable, the Weiners supplement their water supply. When rain is scarce and the cistern runs low, Mike Weiner, 65, a retired car salesman, drives about 12 miles to buy water from a bulk station. For $2, he can put 300 gallons in a tank that sits on the bed of his pickup. Then he hauls the sloshing load home to empty into the cistern.
The Weiners moved to Menifee County from Nashville so Debbie could be closer to her mother, who lives in Mount Sterling. Her mother previously owned property in the Leatherwood Road neighborhood where the Weiners eventually bought a lot and built their house. The couple knew the area had no public water when they moved there in 1998, but they thought it would be only a matter of time before they could hook onto "city water."
Debbie Weiner said she sometimes goes to the Facebook page for Water.org, the organization co-founded by actor Matt Damon to provide safe drinking water and toilets to Ethiopia, Haiti and India and other foreign countries.
She posted a comment to the page July 16 that read, "Wish I had city water here in the United States, in Frenchburg, Kentucky."
She hopes a wealthy celebrity will see her comment and take action to donate money to bring water to the end of Leatherwood Road.