/Rural water problems too complicated for federal funds

Rural water problems too complicated for federal funds

David Koehn (now 76) had plans to build an apartment park on his Washington County land. However, he didn’t have access to a central water supply. Koehn, along with others, drank water from their shallow, often iron-laden, well. The farmer visited each home to find out who would be willing to pay for a new water system. The farmer borrowed money, formed a board with local volunteers, and the Black Bayou Water Association was up and running by 1991, providing water service to approximately 350 households. Koehn stated that the project started out as a community service, but it quickly became a profession. Black Bayou gained a reputation for its clean water. He explained that it is common to see brown tannins coming out of the tap in the Delta because of years of Mississippi River flooding. The water association grew over the years and merged with smaller utilities. The utility now serves approximately 2,800 households in multiple counties. It has connections that extend over 60 miles, from Shaw to Mayersville. The rural water service encountered a legal problem ten years ago. The chlorine used to remove the brown color was not within the EPA’s limits for disinfectant byproducts. These products pose a number of risks, including damage to the liver and nervous system, as well increasing the chance of developing cancer. DBPs are formed when chlorine reacts to organic matter in water. Black Bayou has begun to treat its groundwater with less chlorine. This, however, does not pose any health hazards and means that most homes who pay for utility service are receiving brown water. About 600 people are now receiving clear water from the $1.5 million new plant. This was made possible by USDA loans. The facility uses a polymer to coagulate the tiny bits of organic material in water and then settles out. Koehn stated that it is the goal to repeat that process for the remaining 2200 connections. The small utility requires $14 million to build a new distribution and plant. This will allow it to reach its vast customer base. Mississippi has many small water systems that need assistance, like BBWA. About 70% of Mississippi’s 1,200 public water system are rural systems that serve 1,000 or less homes. Most of these systems were built in the 1960s or 1970s. There are many issues, including aging wells and delivery lines that are not sufficient to meet the demands of storms. BBWA is not the only utility facing compliance problems. The Mississippi Rural Water Association (MRWA), which received news last year about incoming support under the American Rescue Plan Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act asked its members what amount they needed. Only a third of rural water associations in the state responded to the survey, which revealed a $700 million combined need. The Legislature allocated $300 million to rural water associations through APRA funds, and another $450 million was made available through a matching program that allows cities and counties alike to improve their water supplies. Kirby Mayfield, CEO of the Mississippi Rural Water Association said that the ARPA money is not enough. This money is going to make a huge impact on our systems. It’s almost like I have been telling our members: “We’ll never again see this again in our lives, take advantage.” Mayfield presented the findings of the survey to the Senate Appropriations Committee last year. He discussed how many older rural systems that failed to provide adequate water pressure for every home over the years. Mayfield stated that they didn’t require a 2-inch line to run down the road, as there were only five houses on that road. “And today that road might be 50 houses down that road, and that same two-inch line trying to serve those 50 customers is trying to serve them all,” Mayfield said. He also described the financial burden that old infrastructure is putting on water associations that serve low-income communities. In 2013, the EPA calculated that the average national water loss was 16%. Mayfield estimates that the Mississippi average water loss is around 35%. Experts recommend consolidating rural water associations because of the number of small utilities in Mississippi. This will allow for savings on resources and allows board members to share their expertise. Some utilities, such as Black Bayou, are willing to merge. Mayfield said that some utilities are reluctant to assume the debts of nearby utilities in trouble. ARPA funds could also be used to reduce these costs and encourage consolidation, Mayfield said.