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Vinton County, Ohio Residents Await Community Water Systems

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Tuesday, March 21, 2023   

By Zachary Shepherd and Kelsey Paulus for Kent State News Lab.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan reporting for the Kent State-Ohio News Connection Collaboration.

In summer 2022, Garrett, Jenny and their young daughter Katie Betts had no potable water in their home in Vinton County, Ohio. The Betts family's house was on the community water line, but they lived about 250 feet up a hill, which is too far for the system's pumps to successfully push the water.

So several times a week, they made a two-hour-long trip to a local water pump to fill the tank in their trunk, which they used to fill a larger, underground storage tank. They've hauled water for more than a decade.

They're far from the only Ohioans struggling to get clean, potable drinking water, says Terri Fetherolf, who runs the department of development in Vinton County. "Some people have to ration water, have to go elsewhere to get water," Fetherolf said. "They haul it in tanks in the back of their pickup trucks and use [it] out of a 300-gallon tank. Depending on the size of their family, it may last them a few days or a week, and then they have to go haul it again."

Fetherolf said approximately 1,700 of about 5,000 households in Vinton County depend on wells or water from elsewhere for basic household tasks.

Getting water to Appalachian communities is challenging and expensive, said Joe Pheil, the executive director at the Ohio Rural Water Association. Residents are spread out in small communities among the hills and it's difficult to pump water up and down. The reason these people and communities are left without reliable drinking water? The cost.

"I've been to pretty large systems over on the western side of Ohio, where everything's really flat ... The whole system has one pressure [zone]," Pheil said. "I've been to other systems down in the Appalachian area that have 19 different pressure zones in order to pump through the hilly terrain."

Water providers "would love for everybody to have access to water," Pheil said, but the logistical challenges would probably lead to high water bills that aren't affordable for the average household. The median household income in Vinton County was about $45,000 in 2020, compared to about $58,000 statewide.

"They're having a hard time maintaining the infrastructure in those communities because the costs are going up," Pheil said. "The residents in those communities can't afford to pay more money." There's one other option - where the federal and state governments step in with funding for water infrastructure, he said.

Since 1987, the Ohio EPA has offered low or zero-interest loans to community water systems to help fund the development of drinking water infrastructure. The state spent $250 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds on wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects.

But broadly speaking, Pheil said it can be hard to drum up support for grants like this since it can seem like a lot of money for infrastructure that helps relatively few people.

In the meantime, people haul water. The Betts family used a water tank, held down on their flatbed trailer with parallel winch straps. Their storage tank, located on a short but steep gravel drive behind their house, has seen its fair share of problems. They were once left without water during winter for a month.

"It was the middle of winter and I ran out," Garrett said in 2022. "While I was trying to reprime the pump, my line ended up freezing right at the tank." After that winter, Garrett buried the tank underground and hasn't had any issues since, except a few times when the water tank emptied. In those situations, he has to reprime the pump, which takes a few hours.

By summer 2022, hauling water had become a normal part of everyday life, so much so they find themselves not having to keep track of the amount in the tank. Garrett said he typically hauls two to three loads of water every Saturday, which lasts the family a week.

"It's so close, yet so far" to the community water system down the hill in MacArthur, Garrett said. "They talked about [needing] a pump station or a water tower, and we've already offered to donate property to help with that."

In August, Ohio announced a $799,000 grant to connect 52 households in Garrett Ridge, a region of Vinton County near MacArthur, to drinking water. The project aims to extend Jackson County Water Company's service lines into Garrett Ridge.

Keith Solomon, deputy manager of Jackson County Water Company, said this grant money is reserved for the engineering and designing of the project, and any remaining funds afterward will be reserved for the actual construction of the project if it moves forward.

"When the engineering and design work is completed we will be able to present a complete project to the funding agencies," Solomon said via email. "This is a step in the right direction." The Bettses are holding off on making any permanent, expensive changes to their water system in the hopes these grants will soon lead to potable water in their homes.

Garrett said he heard about efforts to fix local water infrastructure over the years - but he's "not going to believe it until it's running through my faucet."

Zachary Shepherd and Kelsey Paulus wrote this article for Kent State News Lab. This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.

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