A water outflow pipe. (Photo by USGS)

It’s been called a ‘once in a generation’ investment in water infrastructure. But the need still far exceeds it.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed by Congress last month includes $55 billion for improving drinking water and wastewater infrastructure—a commitment George McGraw, CEO of DigDeep, a nonprofit that works to provide water access in the U.S., calls the “biggest investment our nation’s ever made in water.” 

“But,” he said, “it’s not nearly enough to solve the problem,” which is complex, costly, and acutely felt throughout the U.S. South. A 2019 report from DigDeep and the U.S. Water Alliance detailed how more than 2 million Americans live without running water, indoor plumbing, or wastewater services in places like the Navajo Nation, the Texas colonias, and parts of the rural South.

Infrastructure in areas of central Appalachia has fallen into disrepair in the decades since coal companies abandoned mining operations. Communities that inherited these systems often don’t have the resources, technical support, or capacity to upgrade them—and in some cases, don’t even have records showing where and when they were built. In West Virginia’s southern coalfields, some systems are up to a hundred years old. 

In a letter to governors this month, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head Michael Regan encouraged states to focus the funding in “disadvantaged communities.” But the need is far greater than what the bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, will be able to fund. Most Southern states need billions for water infrastructure repair over the next 20 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. For instance, West Virginia needs $344 million for water projects and $339 million for sewer projects that have already been seeking financial assistance, according to a 2020 state assessment. The total needed cost is far greater. 

“The cost of providing water service to every remaining unserved household in the state is approximately $2.6 billion,” the report stated. “For sewer service, the estimate is approximately $11.4 billion. If rehabilitation work is considered in the estimate, the need may be approaching approximately $18 billion.”

Kentucky needs billions for upgrades as well. In Martin County, Ken., which has a well-documented history of water problems, Hope Workman collects water in her above-ground swimming pool and pumps it into her home to do laundry. She goes to a nearby mountain spring for drinking water; to bathe, she uses the water from her pipes.

“I’m scared of it,” she said of her water, which she said has a chemical smell. There are  frequent outages, sometimes for days at a time, but she still receives high water bills she has to pay on a fixed income.  

Water in Whitesburg, Ky. in 2019. (Photo courtesy Lyndsey Gilpin)

Workman tries to follow news about infrastructure investments, but like others across the region, she’s mired in the daily obstacles created by these unstable water systems. In early November, the Martin County Water Warriors Facebook group wasn’t filled with posts about the legislation as it made its way to President Biden’s desk: Instead, people complained of significant water outages, the public health risk they presented, and how their kids couldn’t get a bath before school. 

In McDowell County, in West Virginia’s southern coalfields, a third to half of about 19,000 residents have some problem with their water system, and even more with sewage, according to Bob McKinney, a lifelong county resident who manages water projects in Appalachia for DigDeep. One community has been on a boil water advisory for nearly a decade. The existing collections system in another community, built more than 80 years old, left waste “constantly” backing up into a cluster of yards and floating in people’s basements, said Mavis Brewster, the water and sewer utility’s manager. (The first part of a project to address the problem, the utility’s first wastewater undertaking, is set to be finished early next year.) 

How the funding will work 

Every year millions of dollars in federal infrastructure money go to two existing financial assistance programs in each state called state revolving funds. Low-interest loan options fund  the construction of municipal wastewater facilities, fix leaky pipes, and improve water treatment. When a utility pays loan payments and interest on projects, the money goes back into these funds. 

Most of the money from the new federal legislation will trickle down through these traditional streams. What makes it different from previous investments is the sheer amount of money states will receive. West Virginia and Kentucky are set to receive $487 million and $647 million, respectively, over five years starting in 2022. (According to newly released federal numbers, West Virginia will receive $83 million in the first year, with Kentucky collecting $113 million.)

“It’s going to effectively triple the amount of money that is going to water infrastructure over the next five years. That’s huge for every community,” said Scott Berry, the U.S. Water Alliance’s director of policy and government affairs. 

One of the creeks that runs through downtown Inez in Martin County, which has long had problems with water quality and infrastructure. (Photo by Lyndsey Gilpin)

While the EPA administrator asked governors to focus the infrastructure dollars on “disadvantaged communities,” none of the new funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is specifically set aside for rural ones, Berry said. No dollars will go to an existing federal water infrastructure program specifically for towns with under 10,000 people, for example. (That program is still waiting to hear what its funding appropriations will be for 2022-23.)

The state revolving funds are “proven, excellent ways to get funding for communities,” Berry continued, but also require both enormous administrative capacity to apply for them and the ability to take on debt. “A lot of communities that were not able to access those programs initially probably aren’t going to be able to access them now, even though there’s more money in them,” he said. “Those barriers to entry still exist.”

About half of the money will go out as forgivable loans and grants; while that seems appealing, it could be challenging for some utilities having to shoulder the loan burden before it’s forgiven. The rest of the money will fund loans that have to be paid back and “plenty of communities cannot afford those,” Berry said. 

Still, trade groups representing water utilities in Appalachia are optimistic. “What this actually does for West Virginia is unlike anything that’s ever happened before,” said Todd Grinstead, executive director of the West Virginia Rural Water Association.  

Grinstead was one of three people who testified at a U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing in Beckley, W. Va. in October about the need for additional help in rural and small communities. He said he is especially encouraged by new subsidies in the package that will help pay for projects that distressed towns might otherwise struggle to fund because of their dwindling tax base

In McDowell—which has lost a fifth of its population in just 10 years—Brewster confronts this challenge every month when she receives the loan bills. Right now they total tens of thousands of dollars because the utility has at least 15 different loans for ongoing projects, including the ongoing Elkhorn Water Project that aims to connect hundreds of new customers to the county water utility. Money comes from various federal agencies and the state revolving funds. 

“That monthly payment, that’s not changing,” she said. “But you have lost a tremendous amount of customers. So that means your revenue is less.”

Funds from the infrastructure plan also will go toward addressing PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” found in drinking water, totaling $4 billion over five years. In August 2021, more than 2,800 locations in 50 states and two territories had this contamination, including dozens of water systems in Alabama and North Carolina, according to the Environmental Working Group

It also includes $15 billion over five years for lead service line replacement. Millions of families across the country face possible exposure through their drinking water systems, including urban areas like Jackson, Miss,. and smaller cities like Clarksburg, W. Va., where some families reported elevated levels of lead in their children’s blood earlier this year. The state called the situation “concerning” and encouraged families to use bottled water and get young kids screened for lead poisoning if they live in a home built before 1950. Some neighborhoods in West Virginia’s largest towns likely have similar issues with lead service lines, Grinstead said. 

But with estimates to remove lead lines as high as $60 billion, the U.S. Water Alliance called the investment a “laudable down payment on this endeavor,” noting “it is unclear” if it would actually achieve the Biden administration’s goal of solving the problem across the country. 

Many unanswered questions

The package doesn’t specify how many water projects the new dollars might cover, and state agencies have not released information publicly about it. West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources refused to make available a representative from its Environmental Engineering Division, which helps determine how to use the revolving funds. Spokesperson Allison Adler said a list of 17 priority projects that didn’t get funded for 2020-21 will carry over to next year for consideration; they include system upgrades and line extensions in counties across the state. Adler said the state is waiting for final federal dollar amounts and is still collecting project applications.

Wayne Morgan, executive director of the Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council that approves water and wastewater projects in West Virginia, also declined an interview. But at the October Senate hearing Beckley, Morgan described the scope of the problem and the challenges unique to Appalachia’s mountain communities.

“Just like the higher cost of roads in mountainous terrain the cost of water and wastewater systems are higher in states like West Virginia than areas which have rolling or level terrain,” he testified. 

A spokesperson from Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear wouldn’t make a representative available for an interview but in a statement to Southerly called the infrastructure package an “historic win for Kentucky.” 

“While it’s too early to know how the funding will be distributed, we know it will build on the investments we’ve already made through the Better Kentucky Plan’s $250 million Cleaner Water Program. This program also is the product of a bipartisan agreement, and is expected to create 3,800 jobs while investing in water or sewer-related projects statewide,” it read.

Acid mine drainage in a stream in Eastern Kentucky. (Photo by Lyndsey Gilpin)

Gary Larimore, who heads the Kentucky Rural Water Association, said Kentucky leaders have “done a pretty good job” of getting water to underserved communities, but the greatest need is replacing old, aging pipes. Increased water pressure can damage them and cause water loss: About a quarter of the water West Virginia water systems pay to have treated and pumped ever reaches customers because of dilapidated infrastructure, according to a 2019 analysis in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Martin County, Larimore acknowledged, “has had so many problems” with its water. The increased infrastructure money won’t hasten improvements many residents across the region have needed for years. 

“It’s never fast enough. We get this money, but then [there’s] setting up the process,” Larimore said. “It’s going to take some time.” 

Molly Born is Southerly’s Central Appalachia correspondent.

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