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Eastern Kentuckys Struggle With Water Symbolizes Americas Crumbling Infrastructure

On a frigid day in mid-January, Pam Brashear awakened in her house on a hill above a creek at Viper, Kentucky, also tried to turn on the faucet. Nothing came out. She sighed. It wasn’t anything new.

“Each winter, the water goes off,” she explained. “For days. Then you have to boil it. ”

Brashear’s water was out for eight days, which she said pales compared to her neighbors up the mountain who had none for nearly a month. The county authorities handed out bottled water, which she saved — her household doesn’t drink the tap water anyway due to its sulfur-like flavor — and she hiked up a coal bank nearby to carry five-gallon buckets of clean creek water to fill the restroom and brush her teeth.

“People were calling the county every day,” she explained. “When I called, I asked them how much time it would be. They ’d state, ‘No ma’am, no idea, could be tomorrow. ’”

Viper is a unincorporated community — an area without its own municipal government   — a few miles up the street from Hazard at Perry County, an Appalachian coal mining community with a 30 percent poverty rate. The water is sourced in the neighboring Kentucky River and controlled by Hazard Utilities, although many people still use water since they say the utility’s water is unreliable. When freezing temperatures slammed the Southeast earlier this winter, the utility reported that important waterline breaks along with a water deficit from some of its 9,000 customers letting their taps run (done to prevent pipes from freezing) caused the shutoffs.

The crumbling infrastructure is just a snapshot of the larger water crisis in the U.S.. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. a “D” in drinking water infrastructure. According to ASCE, the U.S. dropped about 6 billion gallons of treated water daily, which makes it a $1 trillion problem to repair.

“It’s in pretty tough shape,” said Greg DiLoreto, a retired water utility executive and chair of ASCE’s heritage. “It has a huge effect on the market, and places a significant burden on small and rural communities. ”

In Appalachia, as the coal business has waned, the money that local governments receive from coal severance tax funds (a commission on the quantity of coal extracted) — that helped cover utility and other infrastructure upgrades — has radically decreased. And as the water melts off or runs out more often, with little communication to customers, it’s enormous ripple effects on communities: businesses have to close down, workers get shipped home and lose wages, and schools shut. American households shed $3,400 a year due to poor infrastructure, DiLoreto said, thanks to lost salary or expenses such as purchasing bottled water or repairing their cars due to potholes.

“Mostly, I think people don’t really know exactly what to do,” said Ivy Brashear, Pam’s daughter and the Appalachian Transition Coordinator at Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. “Inevitably [the county] will be able to place tiny patches on just what the difficulty was, but obviously that’s literally just putting a Band-Aid on a broken system. ”

You will find large-scale solutions to tackle these types of basic infrastructure problems. In January, a Kentucky lawmaker introduced a bill to unite some eastern Kentucky counties so they could better pool resources. Perry County recently hired a fulltime grant author to find more funds for economic development projects, particularly those that use abandoned mine land or Appalachian Regional Commission funds.

Some utilities in cities such as Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. , are selling biosolids from wastewater treatment to finance water infrastructure developments; in different places, private water businesses are looking for smaller, fighting public water businesses.

Rather than waiting for all these expensive, long-term changes, however, residents in Appalachia and elsewhere are taking things into their own hands. At Martin County, Kentucky, that has its failing water district which shut off water to residents this year, residents have begun a Facebook group named Martin County Water Warriors to draw attention to the matter and discuss resources. In Marion, North Carolina, activists have hosted community forums that bring city government officials, neighborhood residents, organizations and other stakeholders to strategize how to construct better infrastructure. In Jackson, Mississippi, and Knoxville, Tennessee, residents are planning to get community leaders to run for city council or public service commissions.

The key to finding solutions would be to look at infrastructure and development more holistically, said DiLoreto. “It’s rdquo, & all connected. “Wastewater therapy is typically the biggest user of electricity in a neighborhood, so in the event the electrical grid goes down, the wastewater treatment doesn’t work. It enters the flow, polluting [drinking] water sources. ”

Smarter electric grids and more widespread broadband networks can help resolve these types of problems, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative in the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, that works with electrical cooperatives to expand internet access and introduce programs which make it simpler for outages to be tracked and repaired, or introduce energy efficiency programs.

That could make a huge impact in places like Perry County, that has seen the nation utility, Kentucky Power, try to increase rates by 9 percent. The country’s public service commission is working to decrease the rate by 4 percent; some customers say they are paying anywhere from $600 to $1,000 per month for electricity. “Now that we’ve got the water back, I’m working with a set on electricity,” Pam Brashear said.

Expanded online access could also create more opportunities for work in rural locations. Jackson County, Kentucky, for instance, has a fiber-optic network which has “enabled job development because people can work from home,” he explained.

Obtaining these types of projects started is often the biggest challenge, however it’s exactly what will result in economic transitions in rural communities, said Elizabeth Wright, education coordinator for the Highlander Center in Tennessee. She works on the Appalachian Transition Fellowship, which partners community leaders together with host communities in order that they could create solutions from the ground up. Past programs have focused on renewable energy development, abandoned mine land development, environmental testing or neighborhood education, while others want to know more about infrastructure.

“Appalachia has historically been a region people have come in and extracted from natural resources, and from experiences and culture, so there’s a history of exploitation and compelling dependence on people with one major sector,” Wright said. “There’s a monopoly on people’s capacity to take care of themselves and take care of their own families. ”

But that’so changing, she said. “People who live here know better, and that I think they ’re getting creative and are excited about this opportunity that now exists. There are hardships along with that, but these discussions are really happening. ”

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