Monday, June 19, 2023

Small water systems struggle to maintain service, comply with federal regulations and compete for federal money

State highway map of Grayson and Edmonson counties
On opposite ends of the same Kentucky county are two water-treatment plants, whose stories illustrate the challenges of providing drinking water to rural America. They're part of a long story by Connor Griffin of the Louisville Courier Journal, who is a Report for America corps member and part of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk.

On the shores of Rough River Lake is the new $13 million water plant for the Grayson County seat of Leitchfield, built mainly with federal loans and grants. On the other side of Nolin River Lake, at Wax, is an Edmonson County Water District plant, "where the equipment is outdated and at capacity, and maintenance is constant," Griffin reports, as his main object example. He notes that the district has applied for state help and has another plant, in Brownsville, but doesn't note that removal of dams on the Green River have made that source of supply less dependable.

Griffin's main point is this: "In small and rural communities across the U.S., water system operators are stretched thin, covering around-the-clock responsibilities to keep water running safely and reliably . . . Their staffing is often sparse and underpaid. Infrastructure, in many places, is crumbling and underfunded, and though there is a fresh infusion of federal money on the table, it’s a challenge to access. . . . Smaller systems are at an inherent disadvantage" in applying for federal funds."

Water systems must obey federal regulations designed to ensure that drinking water is safe, and smaller systems are in the 10 states along the Mississippi River had a harder time following the law, Griffin reports. "Many communities will also face increases in their water bills to keep up with infrastructure and staffing needs. Yet raising the price of water may prove unworkable in rural and historically underinvested communities like Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, some of the most impoverished in the country."

Poor places pay less. "Water system operators serve as a first line of defense for a community’s public health, and must have working knowledge of chemistry for licensing tests. Yet entry-level operator pay in some small communities isn’t far above wages at the local McDonald’s," Griffin reports. "A workforce survey last year in Kentucky found water utilities in the commonwealth pay as low as $10 per hour for an entry level position, with an average closer to $18."

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