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Stirring the Waters Inside Appalachia: How Drinking Water Systems Are Failing Rural Residents

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Jesse Wright, WVPB
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For many families in parts of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, the absence of clean, reliable drinking water has become part of daily life.

This week on Inside Appalachia we’ll hear from folks like Blaine Taylor, a 17-year-old resident of Martin County, Kentucky, who struggles to manage basic hygiene when his water comes out with sendiment in it.

“I had to use a case of water last night just to get enough water in my bathtub just to get myself cleaned up for today at school,” he said. “It’s rough.”

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Credit Jessica Lilly, WVPB
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In 2015, Inside Appalachia reported that water districts in central Appalachia struggle to perform routine maintenance, which leads to quality and reliability problems for customers. Sometimes, districts are understaffed and underfunded. The repairs they do make are often inadequate -- and fail to address the long-term problems of water loss and crumbling service lines.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Molly Born, Caity Coyne, from the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and Will Wright, from the Lexington Herald-Leader, spent part of 2018 looking into this issue for a project called Stirring the Waters. They were working through the Report for America initiative, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation.

They discovered West Virginia would need $17 billion to connect hundreds of systems across the state to centralized utility services — both water and sewer. That’s according to the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council. The council is responsible for approving and overseeing infrastructure projects in the state. That’s more than the entire 2018 state budget. By the end of 2017, only $8.5 million dollars were secured for the projects — just more than 1 percent of the necessary funds.

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Credit Jessica Lilly, WVPB
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Jared Brewster stands outside of a dated water system in McDowell County.

We'll also follow a group of graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania, who recently toured water plants in McDowell County hoping to help find a solution to the problem.

Read more stories and learn more about the Stirring the Waters project here.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting will be working with the Report for America Project again in 2019. We’re taking applications for a reporter based in Charleston, West Virginia, who will cover the southern part of the state, including state government. The deadline to apply is Feb. 8, 2019.

Music in today’s show was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Blue Dot Sessions and Ben Townsend.

A special thanks to Report for America corps members Caity Coyne and Will Wright, and former corps member Molly Born, as well as the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Lexington Herald-Leader and GroundTruth staff members who made the Stirring the Waters project possible.

Our host is Jessica Lilly. Molly Born guest-produced the show this week, with help from associate producer Eric Douglas. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. He also edited the show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

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Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program. You can reach her at jlilly@wvpublic.org
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Eric is a native of Kanawha County who graduated from Marshall University with a degree in journalism. He has written for newspapers and magazines throughout his career. He is an author, writing both nonfiction and fiction, including a series of thriller novels set in locations around the world. You can reach Eric at edouglas@wvpublic.org