Journal-Times reporter Jeremy Wells documented in last week's edition the work being done in Olive Hill to repair/replace water lines and address water loss in Olive Hill.
This is a very familiar conundrum for rural communities across Kentucky. The first thing I want to do today is give credit where credit is due — to the leadership and citizenry of Olive Hill who are, through both necessity and trying to pursue the best interests of the community, tackling an issue that other communities across Kentucky are also struggling with. And, the idea that communities are "struggling with" water infrastructure is, lets just say, a bit of an understatement. Some communities in Kentucky are very much in crisis. Others are a main water line break or two away from a crisis, too.
First, the background. Jeremy reports the city of Olive Hill is currently undergoing water line replacement projects in the downtown area. The task is to replace old and leaking pipes. They are also in the middle of implementing an energy savings plan and upgrade of their water treatment plant. Brandon Marcum of Harshaw Trane said the city's water loss is at a startling 70 percent but this number does include "maintenance and fire (usage)."
He said that there are improvements being seen both from the project at the treatment plant and with the water line replacement. Where the water plant used to run continuously, he explained, they are now down to "15.3 hours making water" each day.
Work is still being done on a report pinpointing exactly where the city's water problems are occurring and how they can fix them. The project to replace water lines downtown, meanwhile, is "about 65 percent done" code enforcement officer Taylor Duncan told council. He also told them that his department has discovered the source of a water leak impacting the community pool and that repairs on that would begin soon.
Communities across rural America are facing what can only be described as a national water infrastructure nightmare. And, resources for the fixes, as most know, aren't flooding in. They are instead arriving as a slow, steady drip, and some aren't arriving at all. Consider the following facts just from our corner of Eastern Kentucky:
• In Martin County water problems are well documented. The situation is so bad The Washington Post and other national news outlets have written extensively about it -- basically people without water or dirty water and having to rely completely on bottled water while coping with rate increases. CNN ran a headline on the matter called "The Kentucky County where water smells like diesel."
• In nearby Ashland fixing the aging water infrastructure has until recently been put on the back burner. Some water lines in the city are approaching a century of usage. The last two summers a water line break along US 23 knocked out water services to thousands. The city has also spent tens of millions on upgrading their water treatment plant, their wastewater treatment facility and related infrastructure. The costs are staggering for a small city and there have been several bumps along the road. However, the city rejected a proposal to put a surcharge on water users largely because of the impact on commercial businesses and employers. The city is budgeting to spend $1 million a year on water line replacements. That may sound like a lot but when it comes to replacing water lines in 2019 it is a drop in the bucket compared to the project's overall costs. Water line replacement will take decades to achieve.
• In Greenup County small cities have replaced water tanks, struggled to upgrade infrastructure and some have implemented water rate increases. This is a challenge in rural communities especially where population bases are not growing -- they are declining.
• In Rowan County the the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority Board has approved two loans totaling $8,907,000 to the Morehead Utility Plant Board to improve water infrastructure. Customers over time are going to have to pay back that debt. And, in the past, water/sewer rate increases have certainly been a subject of concern. Last summer water rates increased by $2.45 for the first 2,000 gallons ($17.40 minimum bill) and a steeper sewer rate increase took place with the minimum being $14.60 for the first 2,000 gallons with $7.58 per 1,000 gallons over.
• In Cannonsburg in Boyd County, the Cannonsburg Water District sought a rate increase several years ago and subsequently entered into an agreement with Kentucky Public Service Commission regulators regarding addressing their water loss. That system was at 37 percent water loss at the time. A temporary surcharge helped address the problem but Cannonsburg, like water systems across the state, has had to implement a long term plan to address aging water infrastructure and, interestingly, their infrastructure isn't as old as a lot of systems in the Commonwealth.
Statewide, reporter Ryan Van Velzer of 89.3 WFPL reported in August 2018 that Kentucky needs $15 billion in additional water and sewer system monies over the next 20 years. That's billions with a b. For comparison that's roughly one third of the unfunded pension liability the state currently faces. The figure was provided by Kentucky's Energy and Environment Cabinet. The state’s 213 drinking water treatment plants are more than 38 years old, on average. And about 800 of Kentucky’s wastewater treatment plants are more than 36 years old, on average.
You can see the pattern here. Infrastructure costs and repairs put off until they become a crisis. Possible resources are available through the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority Board and there has been progress on the national level through The America’s Water Infrastructure Act. Resources are available through multiple federal programs with long-term planning by communities.
All of this tells us, though, that these issues when it comes to water should be at the top of agenda for all rural communities. What does this mean for the taxpayer? More money is going to be needed, and a lot of it.