In Eastern Kentucky, dealing with an absence of reliable, clean drinking water has become a part of daily life for many families.
A series of stories published by the Herald-Leader earlier this week, titled Stirring the Waters, featured a family in Martin County who are often forced to collect rainwater to get by during long outages. Other residents said they are afraid to drink the water that comes out the tap, leaving them to spend upwards of $50 a month on bottled water for drinking and cooking.
Now, some state and local officials have called for increased regulation and accountability of water districts.
“It’s a big issue and one that needs to be addressed,” said State Rep. Chris Harris, (D-Forest Hills), who represents Martin County and some of Pike County. “This problem has manifested itself in Martin County and a few other small districts across the state, but it’s going to get worse and worse.”
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The series, Stirring the Waters, showed how some districts have failed to keep up with ongoing maintenance and allowed their finances to reach a near-breaking point, leaving many customers to suffer from long outages and stints of dirty water flowing from the taps.
Because water utilities get most of their funding through the collection of water bills, declining populations in Appalachian Kentucky left many districts without the necessary funds to keep up with water line repairs and other maintenance issues.
“You’re dealing with major problems, whether its water, wastewater or solid waste, with no revenue stream to address those problems,” said Ray Jones, Pike County’s Judge-Executive-elect. “One of the first meetings that we’re going to have … is a detailed presentation from Mountain Water District on their finances and some of these issues.”
Mountain Water District, which serves about 16,700 homes and businesses in Pike County, has, like many water districts in Eastern Kentucky, a high rate of water loss. In 2017, the district lost nearly one of every three gallons it produced through leaking lines and faulty meters.
Districts have also failed to increase rates on a gradual basis, leading to requests for massive rate increases to the tune of 40 percent.
“This is what happens when regulatory oversight is not what it should be,” Harris said. “We have got to create some regulatory oversight for water districts around the state, and that has to be done through the Public Service Commission, and we’ve got to find a way to fund that.”
Kentucky’s Public Service Commission regulates most utilities in the state, including water districts, but staffing and funding for the Commission have substantially declined in recent years.
The Commission’s authorized expenditures, set by the state in its biennial budget, has fallen by about 20 percent, or $2.3 million, over the past 10 years. Its staffing levels dropped by about 40 percent during the same time period.
PSC spokesman Andrew Melnykovych said that while staffing has decreased, the commission’s workload has not.
“If anything, it’s increased,” he said. “The PSC is clearly fulfilling its regulatory functions, but it’s putting a strain on the staff.”
In addition, the Commission has limited ability to step in and force new management on districts that are failing to provide adequate services to customers.
The most highly-publicized of these is the Martin County Water District. Customers of this Eastern Kentucky district have for years reported long water outages and poor quality. A long history of financial mismanagement, and the failure of the district to increase rates gradually, led it to a financial breaking point that it has yet to overcome.
After nearly a year of meetings and reviews, the PSC ordered the district last month to find new management to run the district’s day-to-day operations.
But PSC Chairman Michael Schmitt said in a concurring opinion attached to the order that the PSC lacked the statutory authority to act quickly enough to save the district from its current crisis.
“This self-inflicted dilemma cries out for a swift and decisive resolution by a responsible regulatory authority,” Schmitt wrote, saying the situation warranted the PSC taking control of the district and implementing new management. “The General Assembly, however, has not granted us that authority.”
Melnykovych said the PSC is always interested in discussing ways to improve its oversight of water districts and other utilities, but that “any such discussions of expanded oversight must include a consideration of the impact on PSC budget and staff.”
State Rep. Angie Hatton (D-Whitesburg) said the water district that serves many Letcher County residents has struggled to get enough funding to extend water lines to families in areas blocked off by the mountainous terrain.
While about 95 percent of all Kentuckians have access to city water, according to state officials, just 60 percent of people in the Letcher County Water District’s service area are connected to its lines, according to the district’s general manager Mark Lewis.
Lewis said the district provides reliable, clean water to its current customers, but that it will continue to rely on funding from competive federal grants to extend lines to the thousands of residents still without access to city water.
“Those folks deserve water just as much as the rest of the state,” Hatton said. “It doesn’t seem to be the priority of Frankfort to reach out to places like Martin County and the edge of Harlan and Letcher counties. Maybe we just haven’t made enough noise about it.”
Hatton said she and other state legislators have briefly discussed filing a bill similar to one passed in California, which put into law that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”
On a federal level, both Sen. Mitch McConnell and Congressman Hal Rogers, who represents most of Eastern Kentucky, said they will continue to support agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission, which awards grants to water districts and other community and economic development projects in Eastern Kentucky.
“Improving infrastructure is costly and requires a lot of planning at the local and state level, but without access to clean water, sewer, energy, transportation, broadband and the like, we cannot do business in Eastern Kentucky,” Rogers said. “That’s why I have worked with local, state and federal officials and various agencies on countless projects to improve our infrastructure.”
Rogers, who serves as chairman emeritus of the House Appropriations Committee, requested an additional $8 million for water systems in small, disadvantaged communities, and said he is hopeful the request will be enacted before the end of the year.
McConnell said the America’s Water Infrastructure Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump in October, is “said to be the ‘most significant drinking water law’ enacted in nearly two decades.”
“This bill focuses on the unique challenges our local communities face, and ensures access to functioning sewer systems and clean drinking water,” McConnell said. “And, for the first time in over 20 years, this legislation re-authorizes federal funding to states to help ensure the safety of our drinking water.”
State Rep. Attica Scott, (D-Louisville), said the drinking water problems in Eastern Kentucky could be a way to connect rural Kentuckians with urban people who face similar environmental issues, like poor air quality.
Scott said she would support additional funding for the Public Service Commission, and legislation that ensures the right of all Kentuckians to clean, reliable drinking water.
“I think it’s evident by the crisis that we’re seeing in Martin County that we have to have this in writing,” Scott said. “These are universal concerns and crises that we all have to gather around.”
This series is part of a collaborative effort by the Lexington Herald-Leader, Charleston Gazette-Mail 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. Reach Will Wright at 859-270-9760, @HLWright.