Editorials

Martin County may be the worst. But it’s not Kentucky’s only drinking-water crisis. What can be done?

Despite an unusually rainy summer, the reservoir that supplies Martin County’s water treatment plant ran dangerously low because of operational problems, including a pump that the district has repeatedly paid to repair or replace.
Despite an unusually rainy summer, the reservoir that supplies Martin County’s water treatment plant ran dangerously low because of operational problems, including a pump that the district has repeatedly paid to repair or replace. Photo provided by Lisa Smith Stayton

Martin County’s drinking-water crisis has been used to spotlight the effects of failing infrastructure, rural poverty, pollution, the power of the coal industry and weather. CNN has visited. Erin Brockovich has weighed in.

Pick your narrative, the long-suffering customers of the Martin County Water District can probably fit it.

What has not emerged: A ready source of money to fix decrepit water lines, the system’s most urgent physical need.

The Kentucky Public Service Commission on Nov. 5 set the stage for finally bringing in competent management — from outside — while also approving a permanent rate increase and a pair of surcharges to repair the “crumbling water system” and pay down its $1.1 million debt.

If the district fails to meet deadlines for hiring expert management and submitting a rehab plan, the PSC said it will cancel the surcharges and seek to appoint a receiver to run the utility.

Bravo for this PSC, which seems to mean business — after decades of commissions that let Martin County’s chronic mismanagement slide.

Two grants totaling $4.6 million announced early this year by Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Matt Bevin don’t directly address the most urgent problem: unaccounted-for water loss of 64 percent.

Most of the water that leaves the treatment plant never reaches anyone’s tap. Broken lines account for most of that loss, though theft or customers not being billed could cause some. Groundwater enters the broken lines as pressure fluctuates. The result: frequent outages and boil-water advisories, discolored and smelly tap water. Those who can afford bottled water use it for drinking and cooking. Many in this poor county can’t afford it. The district estimates the cost of needed upgrades and repairs at $13.5 million.

With the rate increase and if both surcharges take effect, by next year the average Martin countian using 4,000 gallons of water a month will pay $57.53. That’s almost $21 more than they would pay in Lexington.

More frequent, smaller rate increases — spent on regular maintenance — would have been cheaper in the end. But a politically-appointed board shied from raising rates, which is one of the reasons the system is, as the PSC said, on the brink of collapse.

Martin County is the state’s worst water district, says the PSC, but it’s far from the only one plagued by failing infrastructure, outages and frequent boil-water advisories, raising two points:

▪ The legislature should authorize the PSC and Division of Water to deal swiftly with such crises. As PSC chairman Michael J. Schmitt of Paintsville wrote in a concurring opinion, “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.” Instead, Schmitt said, the only options are a drawn-out court fight to appoint a receiver, who would be paid through even higher rates, or trying to force a merger. “Unfortunately, surrounding water districts are faced with similar management problems and it is unlikely they could provide either the financial stability or the managerial expertise required to remedy the problems,” Schmitt wrote.

▪ Rural places facing population decline are going to need low-interest loans to maintain infrastructure. Federal loan programs, however, are geared toward expanding water infrastructure, which benefits exurban areas more than rural places. At the very least, authorities should allow the $4.6 million in grants from abandoned mine lands funds and the Appalachian Regional Commission to be reprioritized to meet Martin County’s most pressing needs.

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