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"We're just looking for water service:" A look at water infrastructure woes in eastern Kentucky

Stock image of an outdoor water faucet
Stock image of an outdoor water faucet

For years, Eastern Kentucky has dealt with multiple hardships including poverty and natural disasters.

 Those ongoing issues have led serious concerns over with the area's water infrastructure.

Eastern Kentucky is used to wet seasons but nothing like 2022 when a deadly and historic flood ravaged the region.  Along with the lives lost, and homes damaged, water systems are still being repaired after flooding damaged drinking water systems.

But residents had water problems long before the floods hit.

Overall, Actual access to water does not seem to be a problem for residents according to Joe Burns, Director of Programs and Operations for the Kentucky Rural Water Association. He said nearly everyone in Kentucky can get access to public water.

“Throughout Kentucky there's probably about 98% of the citizens of the commonwealth have access to public water. That was an initiative under Governor Patton back in 2000.”

Joe Burns, Director of Programs and Operations for the Kentucky Rural Water Association.
Stan Ingold
Joe Burns, Director of Programs and Operations for the Kentucky Rural Water Association.

However, the way water is distributed throughout the area seems to be the issue. Burns said some systems still have 70 to 100 year old pipe in the ground. Some water systems still use old cast iron pipes and they're simply worn out. But fixing them isn't easy, or cheap, that is why utilities try to hold on.

“Try to make that pipe last as long as you can, because when you look at the prospect of replacing it, and you see where all the buildings are, all the black top, the sidewalks, the cost to replace all of that is incredible.”

This means breaks and leaks are common and this can leave some people in a tight spot, with little water to drink or clean with, or sometimes no water at all.

That is something Floyd County resident Randy Davis and his neighbors have been struggling with. He is a Southern Water and Sewer customer and said the infrastructure there is aging as well.

“It's never been maintained, it's not been no update on this system in a long time, and it's just an outdated, wore out, dilapidated system.”

A call to Southern Water and Sewer confirmed they are dealing with a aging water system.

Davis has been trying to get himself and those around him hooked into Prestonsburg's water system.

“We're at the end of the line here on Southern and Prestonsburg does have a crossover tied into Southern, at times they will tie us into Prestonsburg for some to have water, but we still have other people out.”

Davis said outages make it especially hard for some members of his community.

“In our neighborhood here, we have a lot of elderly people that are just not able to go to the creek to carry water to flush the commodes with and bath with.”

One of the logistical issues utilities face in this area is actually getting the water to people. Joe Burns said with eastern Kentucky, that means dealing with mountains and hills.

“The further you get east and the elevation and terrain changes, the need for more pumps, higher pressure pipe and pressure control valves when you go down the hills, so you pump it up and going down, you have to control it so there's numerous pressure reducing valves in those systems.”

Burns said this really adds up for the utilities.

“Between that additional infrastructure, and then the maintenance cost and the electric cost becomes incredible. There's systems with 50, 80, well over 100 pump stations in their system.”

Davis said they aren't always sure when the water will be flowing or if it's flowing enough, and that can be a serious problem. Davis is a volunteer firefighter, and as you might guess, water is an important part of his job.

“Being a first responder, we always like to know if the water is going to be out, because if we have a structure fire, we automatically know we have another department that can come to us and bring us tankers, it does kind of leave us in a bad situation.”

Stock image of water flowing from a pipe in a rural area
Stock image of water flowing from a pipe in a rural area

He said the recent cold snap is a prime example of what they have to deal with.

“Water pressure was real low, but we managed to keep enough to bathe with, but where they don't have a pump station close, they can only pump it so far up on 850 and there was still people out, from what I hear, four to five days.”

He said he and his neighbors aren't looking to get any kind of special treatment.

“So, we don't care to pay out bills, we're just looking for water service.”

In part two of our series on water issues in Eastern Kentucky, we’ll look at how municipalities address aging water infrastructure and some of the challenges they face.

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Stan Ingold is WEKU's News Director. He has worked in public broadcasting for 18 years, starting at Morehead State Public Radio before spending the past 10 years at Alabama Public Radio. Stan has been honored with numerous journalism awards for his public radio reporting.
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