SALYERSVILLE — Magoffin County's elementary school children filed through the lunch line Friday with paper plates and cups instead of their usual washable lunch trays and plates. Some carried small bottles of water on the day that Gov. Steve Beshear declared a state of emergency for their county.
The reason: County residents are facing a water supply emergency and have been asked to conserve water wherever possible. So the school has shut off water fountains and stopped washing dishes.
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That's been the routine for weeks now at school — and at home, said Grover Arnett, who's been the principal at Salyersville Elementary School for 34 years.
"I've never seen anything like this before," said Arnett. "I'm not sure if we could operate ... if we didn't have any water at all."
The water shortage in the county reached a critical level three weeks ago. And with no rain in sight — forecasts call for below normal chances of rain for the next two weeks — many fear it's just a matter of days before the county water supply runs dry.
"Things are not looking good," said Damon White, the environmental control supervisor for the Hazard office of Kentucky's Division of Water. .
The main source of water for the county and the town of Salyersville is the Licking River, which is not flowing. Some water is being pumped from behind a dam, but loss of that supply is imminent, officials said.
The town also has two wells, which produce about two-thirds of the water usually needed. The rain that moved through Kentucky this week produced only half an inch in the headwaters of the Licking River.
Standing on the banks of the river Friday, White pointed to muddy spots where the water had completely dried up.
"The only thing that's going to help this situation is rain," White said. "If it continues like this, the county will eventually be without water."
In the meantime, local officials have declared a water emergency and asked residents to cut back on water use. They say people should use water only for health and sanitary purposes, as they look for ways to connect the town and county water systems with neighboring counties.
For the most part, the tiny town has rallied to the cause.
School students say they are taking quicker showers at home. Car washes across the county have closed their doors. And, like the school system, dozens of businesses are using paper plates so they don't have to wash dishes and are cooking with bottled water.
Many restaurants have also stopped using their soda fountain machines. The McDonald's in Sal yersville, for example, was serving canned sodas this week.
"It's affected everybody," said Dorothy Sal yer, owner of D & M Coffee Pot, a hometown restaurant on Main Street. "We are all doing what we can to help."
For now, that also includes praying, said Roger Arnett, 48, of Salyersville, who is not related to the principal.
"Everybody here is just praying for rain," he said. "It's been the driest I can ever recall."