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19th August 2017
Continued from Part 1....

Generally, systems rely on customers to pay for upgrades, presenting a challenge for small communities who have fewer people to charge for water. Areas without growth are often forced to choose between keeping up with maintenance costs or keeping water payments low. The EPA and state governments provide some grants and low-interest loans, but there isn’t enough money available to meet most needs, and they often require complicated applications.

“The average person looks at (water) like electricity,” said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “They just want it to be there, and they want it to be at a fair price.”

For instance, 260 miles southeast of Wolfforth is Brady, a city proudly known as the “Heart of Texas.” The community is trying to secure funding from the state’s Economically Distressed Areas Program for a $22 million water system project to get rid of the underground radium contaminating its drinking water. This fund only has $50 million left, and Brady is not the only city in contention for the money, leaving some concerned about the future of Brady’s water if it doesn’t receive part of the last allocation.

“If we don’t get it this time and the state doesn’t reauthorize that program, I don’t know what we’ll do,” said Amy Greer, a sixth-generation farmer at the locally operated Winters Family Beef. “I really want our state legislators to know how terrible it is that they are not renewing a program that will help small rural communities face and tackle these kind of massive health and safety problems, and I’m just ashamed of them.”

Despite funding uncertainty and mounting pressure from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s drinking water authority, the city is determined to get clean water for its 5,400 residents.

“The answer is solving the water problem because EPA and TCEQ has placed a timeline on us,” Mayor Tony Groves said. “If we don’t do that, there’s always the risk that they could come in and say, ‘OK, you lose your water system, and we’re gonna pay somebody to operate your water system better than you’re operating it and you’re gonna pay for it.’”

What’s in the water?

While many communities with small systems, like Wolfforth and Brady, struggle to address contamination issues, thousands more of these communities aren’t sure if their water is safe because their systems don’t test properly or report the results.

In southern West Virginia coal country, a number of communities failed to test their water hundreds of times after the miners that operated them left when their camps shut down. Many of these systems are now run by the residents.

In Garwood, a 55-person Wyoming County town surrounded by coal mines, the community water system stopped testing in 2014.

“Everybody just up and quit,” said lifelong resident Jessica Griffith, who drank untreated water from an old coal mine for nine months before learning it wasn’t being tested. “There was no warning, no nothing. Nobody handed it over to anybody else.”

The stay-at-home mom and her neighbors say maintenance seems like a full-time job, and they can only afford to patch up leaks and fix busted pipes.

“We’ve just been trying to keep the water flowing because we don’t have the money to treat it,” Griffith said. “We don’t know how to treat it.”

Two hours north, Kanawha Falls Community Water in Fayette County was cited for not testing or reporting more than 2,000 times in 10 years, the most in the country. No one is sure when the system stopped being maintained, but residents say they experience the consequences daily. Joe Underwood, who had skull surgery after a four-wheeler accident, said he showers with a cap after doctors told him the town’s water gave him two infections near his brain.

“The old-style ways of getting water is not healthy,” Underwood said. “And I’m meaning that for people that have serious injuries. I’m meaning that for little babies. I’m meaning that for anybody that has any kind of health problems.”

The unincorporated community relies on volunteers like Bobby Kirby, nominated by his neighbors to be water system treasurer, to pour chlorine into the storage tanks to disinfect the water. After years of not testing and reporting, Kirby says the state threatened to arrest him for failing to turn in paperwork.

“They came here and said they was going to lock me up,” he said. “Well, I told them, ‘You can lock me up if you want to, but I don’t own it. I’m just a property owner that wants water.’”

The West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, the agency responsible for improving infrastructure in the state, announced several projects to link communities like Kanawha Falls and Garwood to surrounding city water systems. Kanawha Falls’ $1.8 million extension is scheduled to be completed by the end of the summer.

While some systems in West Virginia have no operators, other small systems throughout the country don’t have the money to ensure full-time maintenance.

Scotts Mills, a city of 370 tucked away in the tree-lined foothills of northwest Oregon, cannot afford to hire a full-time staff for its water system and relies on local volunteers to step up.

“We rely on a neighbor complaining about an odor or something like that. We really don’t have any staff to drive around and look,” said Dick Bielenberg, the city councilman in charge of water. “If there’s a water leak or something like that we’ll take care of that, sometimes with volunteer labor, sometimes we’ll hire an outside contractor, depends upon how big the project is.”

Resident Jake Ehredt volunteered to be the water commissioner when he moved into community three years ago. However, Ehredt is also a full-time water system operator for the neighboring city of Molalla and said he can only spend an hour or two a day in Scotts Mills for routine checks. While he is away, residents with water problems are directed to call Bielenberg by a sticky note on the city hall door.

“One thing we have out here is contact with our elected officials. We know them,” said Ron Hays, whose family has lived in and around Scotts Mills since 1899. “If the water main breaks, you know who to call.”

Though surveys from the Oregon Health Authority showed the city’s water system hasn’t violated any safety standards, Bielenberg says the city needs a plan for at least the next 20 years should any problems arise.

“There’s not a lot of money so you learn to get by and improvise,” Ehredt said. “We are going to work on updating little small things.”

Replacement era

According to the EPA, most of the $384 billion needed to keep the country’s water systems safe should go toward upgrading pipes buried underground that distribute the water – out of sight and mind to most Americans until one of them bursts.

“The plants are visible. If EPA makes a regulation, and you have to comply with it, then the utility manager can go to the board and say, ‘Hey, I have to do this, EPA is making me do it,’ and then get the money to build the treatment improvements,” said Roberson, of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “It’s a little harder, then, when you’re talking about the pipes that are buried in the ground because you don’t see the pipes. You don’t know if you have a problem until you get a big leak or a big geyser comes out in the street.”

Even if water service is not disrupted by a pipe break, millions of miles of lead pipes in the U.S. are at risk of leaching the toxic metal into drinking water without proper oversight from system operators. In Milwaukee, about 70,000 homes are connected to the city’s water system with aging lead pipes, many of which run under low-income and African-American communities in the city’s northside neighborhoods. Many residents fear this has contributed to the city’s high rate of lead poisoning among children.

Pipes that leak or break can also introduce bacteria and chemicals from the surrounding soil after the water has already been treated.

Government officials acknowledge the daunting challenges ahead for water utilities. In the final months of the Obama administration, the EPA’s Office of Water published a report highlighting aging infrastructure, unregulated contaminants and financial support for small and poor communities as top concerns for drinking water quality going forward.

“The actions proposed here go far beyond what EPA alone can do; all levels of government, utilities, the private sector and the public each have critical roles to play,” the report said. “Utilities ultimately must take many of the critical actions needed to strengthen drinking water safety, and communities must be actively engaged in supporting these actions.”

Industry groups are sounding the alarm about the bill coming due for water infrastructure as it enters a “replacement era.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a “D” grade for the quality of its drinking water systems based on an evaluation of their safety, condition, capacity and other criteria. Of the 25 states with individual grades, none scored higher than a “C+.” Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska all received “D” level grades.

The American Water Works Association estimated water systems will need about $1 trillion in investment during the next 25 years just to maintain and expand water service. This price tag doesn’t include the costs associated with getting rid of lead service lines or upgrading water treatment plants.

“A part of that, not all of it, but a part of it, is a lack of investment when it should have started earlier,” Steve Via, American Water Works Association director of federal relations, said about the upgrades necessary in coming years.


News 21 analyzed 680,000 violations from a 10-year period starting Jan. 1, 2007, in the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System. The database only contains active community water systems in U.S. states and tribal lands because they are the most likely to serve homes. The EPA data also shows how many people were affected by violations. The EPA has acknowledged this database might not reflect all violations that have occurred and some information may be incorrect.

The violations included two types: health-based violations and monitoring/reporting violations. Health-based violations are instances when water was found to be contaminated or not properly treated for contaminants. The story refers to these violations as water quality violations. Monitoring/reporting violations occur when a water system either fails to test for a contaminant or report its test result to the state and customers.


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