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Beneath the Surface — Drinking Water Inside Appalachia

Cierra Coleman holds her 9-month-old son, Keaton, in her mother's Gary home. The Colemans bathe Keaton in bottled water.

For many families in parts of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, the absence of clean, reliable drinking water is part of daily life.

Blaine Taylor, a 17-year-old resident of Martin County, Kentucky, struggles to manage basic hygiene when his water comes out with sediment 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.”

This episode is the culmination of a six-month Report For America (RFA) project by Molly Born from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Caity Coyne from the Charleston Gazette-Mail and Will Wright from the Lexington Herald-Leader. The RFA initiative is a national service program in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. 

Jessica and Tim Taylor of Martin County collect water in buckets to deal with long water outages that have plagued their family.

The three reporters spent six months working in central Appalachia to understand why so many residents lack access to reliable drinking water. The series, called Stirring the Waters, was recently named a finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists. The awards honor the best reporting and storytelling by journalists under the age of 35 across all forms of journalism.

They discovered West Virginia would need $17 billion to connect hundreds of systems across the state to update crumbling water and sewer systems, according to the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council. By the end of 2017, only $8.5 million dollars were secured for the projects — just more than 1 percent of the necessary funds.


In 2015, Inside Appalachia reported that water districts in central Appalachia struggle to perform routine maintenance, which leads to problems for water 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 service lines in need of repair.

Music in this show was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Spencer Elliott, 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. Roxy Todd is our producer. Molly Born guest-produced this show. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. 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.


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 joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." 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