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Glenn Puit

The work in Olive Hill is ongoing to repair/replace water lines and address water loss in the community.

In Russell, a brand new water tank was installed at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet, there have been some problems with the system -- some customers reported receiving brownish water and the tank it appears is not filling to capacity. Meanwhile Flatwoods — which gets its water from Russell — is looking at an 11 percent increase in water costs.

This are very familiar conundrums for rural communities across Kentucky. The first thing I want to do today is give credit where credit is due -- to all those who are trying to fix their communities’ water infrastructure either through necessity or simply trying to look out for what is best. Communities across Eastern Kentucky are trying to tackle an issue that other communities across the state, and nation are struggling with as well. 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.

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 Olive Hill the community is carrying out 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)."

— 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 Ashland fixing the aging water infrastructure is a seemingly never-ending task. 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, in my view, staggering for a small city and there have been several bumps along the road. The city is challenged with the question every community faces -- how in the world are we expected to pay for all of this? The city recently 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 more than $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.

— 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.

Before I became the editor of The Daily Independent I was the editor of two newspapers in Oklahoma. Guess what the big story was for rural communities there? Water. Infrastructure problems, skyrocketing costs, muddy water in rural communities. When I was a reporter in Las Vegas for 11 years guess what the big story was there? Water. Where are we going to get enough water for sustinence? Will there be enough? How can we possibly pay for all this?

You can see the pattern here. Often times it is infrastructure costs and repairs put off until they become a crisis. Here locally 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 and that we need real leadership from the federal government on this front -- far more than what we are getting now. As the nation immerses itself in incendiary culture wars our infrastructure continues to decay. Unacceptable.

What does this mean for the taxpayer? This problem will be with us for generations. More money is going to be needed, and a lot of it. The sooner rural communities get ahead of these problems the better. There are no pleasantries ahead. Only bigger bills and, for communities who don’t take this on, dry taps.

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