Country musician Tyler Childers delivering 500 cases of water to this Kentucky town

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Stirring the Waters

The lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia is stirring a public debate over the crisis and prompting calls to fix a long-failing infrastructure.

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Country music star and Eastern Kentucky native Tyler Childers plans to deliver 500 cases of water to Martin County residents Saturday in Inez.

The Martin County Water District became the most prominent example of water reliability and quality problems in Eastern Kentucky after an outage in January left thousands of residents without running water for days. Many of the district’s customers continue to report days-long water outages that force some families to collect rainwater for bathing, and some post videos on social media of brown and discolored water flowing out their taps.

“It’s a big deal for someone like Tyler Childers to help raise awareness,” said Jimmy Don Kerr, chairman of the Martin County Water Board. “I think he has a real passion for the water situation.”

Childers, from Lawrence County, has emerged as one of the most prominent musicians to come from Eastern Kentucky in recent years. He’s been featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, and played at some of the nation’s largest music festivals, including Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. Earlier this year, Childers won the Emerging Artist of the Year Award from the Americana Music Association.

Childers will help distribute water from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Inez Community Center.

The water district’s problems were featured prominently earlier this month in a Herald-Leader series called Stirring the Waters, which investigated why many in Central Appalachia still lack reliable access to clean water. In Martin County, for example, the water system loses nearly three out of every four gallons of water it treats as it travels through leaky pipes.

In response, some state and local officials have called for increased regulation and accountability of water districts.

The district has received approval for two grants totaling nearly $5 million to improve its service lines, and to upgrade its treatment plant, but those improvements are only a starting point, officials have warned. Meanwhile, the average water bill in the county is increasing about 44 percent.

Tyler Childers, who performed at the MoonTower Music Festival in August, is in the midst of a three-night stand at The Burl. Rich Copley

Kerr said Childers reached out to the Martin County Water Board and set up a conference call with district officials last week.

“He’s one of us,” Kerr said. “For him to be that concerned about it and actually do something — actually put an action to it — is a big deal.”

BarbiAnn Maynard, a Martin County resident and member of the Martin County Concerned Citizens activist group, said Childers has followed the county’s water troubles through a Facebook group called Martin County Water Warriors, where residents share information about water outages and quality problems.

Since hearing about his visit to Inez, people from other Eastern Kentucky counties have reached out with offers to bring even more water on Saturday.

“If more people that had a following would reach out and do a little thing like this, we could be doing a whole lot better,” Maynard said. “He picked a very good cause. Being from Louisa, those are our neighbors — it’s good to see our neighbors thinking of us.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright.